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Turtle Tales!

How sustainability principles can translate to biodiversity conservation

Haley Randell
Stressed and devastated, we sprinted through shallow cold
waves that soaked our pants. Seagulls picked off silver-dollar
sized sea turtles for morning snacks. A late-hatch led these
little ones to face their attackers in the
We sprang into action, divvying up the
rescue efforts for the turtles by
screaming and yelling to each other
and at the murderous birds. Frantically, we ran around collecting turtles
and swatting gulls, Ill go after the
birds, you get the turtles!! Those vulture-esque seagulls always seemed to
emerge out of the sand scavenging for
easy pickings, especially unattended
turtles and Sun chips. Ash! Can you
tell how many have been taken?? Not
the best day of turtling on Cumberland Island.
Cumberland Island hides off the southern coast of Georgia,
only accessible to man by boat and intends to stay that way.

The sereneness is like nothing Ive experienced

and sun-glaring drive to the shore. Surprisingly,

before. While taking long walks through the miles

we found indications of a new nest upon arrival

of Spanish moss lined beach and forest, I searched

a good sign for the turtles!

for skittish armadillos that always seemed to be

Though new to finding

digging their head in the ground. Other times, I

freshly-laid nests, counting

might stumble upon a new-born wild horse. But

hatched eggs, and everything

its the 700 sea turtle nests and 52,309 hatched

that goes along with turtling,

baby turtles in 2012 that define this wildlife

I felt that I had the procedure down. After all, its

heaven for me.

not rocket science to dig up eggs and count them,

I started the day like any other turtle girl would,

right? Marking new nests may not be the most

busy before sunrise, loading up the Park Service

glamorous part of the job, but it protects incubat-

truck with blank white wooden posts, old fencing

ing turtles from nest thieves like hogs and coyotes.

screens, and ever-enticing Texas Pete-filled turkey

We would hop out of our truck, barefoot and sun-

sandwiches for lunch. Id only been turtling for

tanned, and just dig, careful not to get too much

about a week at this point, but it was still complete

sand under our fingernails and especially not to


slip our fingers through an eggshell, an event that

The uninhabited beach is 17 miles long, a perfect

is equal parts sad and gooey. But the feeling of a

spot for those egg-filled Caretta caretta

freshly laid endangered sea turtle egg is unimagin-

loggerhead sea turtlesto nest. My two fellow

able. If we missed a nest because wind erased the

turtle girl partners-in-crime ran a tight ship keep-

tracks or we just couldnt find it, more often than

ing track of the turtle nests during the first half of

not the wild hogs, ghost crabs, or raccoons on the

the nesting season, as high numbers of mama tur-

island would sniff out the nest and dig up the eggs

tles landed upon the shore to lay their eggs.

for an aphrodisiac-y meal.

We bet on the number of turtles that had hatched

Its almost 7am now and only a half-mile or so

the night before during our two-minute, bumpy

down the beach we see another turtle crawl! New

..we found
indications of a
new nest upon
arrival a good
sign for the turtles!

crawls looked like if a tourist set down one of

There are about 100 eggs in each loggerhead nest

those monstrous coolers and dragged it from the

and if there are not any lighting distractions

ocean to the tanning spot and then back to the

housing lights, bonfires, traffic lights, etc.then

ocean, not an easy task. Realizing last night could

all hatched turtles crawl in the direction of the

have been a good night for turtles to get busy and


lay nests, we mentally prepared for more new

Light to a sea turtle is like a Black Friday deal to a

nests or crawls to dig up.

mother of five, they cannot turn away. Baby turtles

Not every turtle sighting means eggs. Almost half

pop out of the sand and follow silvery reflections

the time a turtle drags

of moonlight toward the ocean where they know

her 300 pound body to

food awaits. Those animal instincts are some of

the dunes but does not

the best in the animal kingdom! So, a distraction

like the area and turns

like a bonfire on the beach often causes the turtles

away to try another

to scurry as fast as possible down the coastline in-

locale. Mistaking real

stead of to the ocean. This puts the turtles at risk

nests for these false

to death from starvation, predation, or exhaustion.

crawls can be frustrating, since conservationists

To prevent this risk, conservation organizations

will not take measures to protect incubating eggs

have created lights out campaigns on nesting

in unmarked nests, thus increasing the chance of

beaches, to ensure the turtles end up in the ocean

predators gobbling up the nest.

and not someones backyard.

We pulled up to the hatched nest. It was still early

After recording the nest and hopping back into the

in the morning; the sun hadnt made it to the

sandy truck, we barely traveled any distance be-

scorching hot angle yet so the long shadows em-

fore finding a new nest! What is it, we hit 600

phasized the tiny baby turtle marks. Looking from


the hatched nest toward the ocean, you will ob-

It was highly unusual to have this many new nests

serve what looks like an explosion out of the sand.

so late in the season. Once August hit, just about

all the activity was supposed to be baby crawls to

turning back to the same beach may actually in-

the ocean, maybe a couple lagging nests here and

crease parasite resistance, which is why its impor-

there. Loggerhead nests sit in the ground for about

tant to not baby the turtles by carrying them to

60 days on Cumberland so anything late in the sea-

the ocean from the nest, as adorable as that is.

son is vulnerable to cold water or ground tempera-

The DNA collection makes the work feel very sci-

tures, another factor to add to the survival of this

entific and substantial, as well. Wearing neon blue


gloves, we piled out of the truck, pulled out our

Young grasshopper, me, took the reins for this new

vials, cut through the sacrificed egg and took the

nest and with the help of the team dug all the eggs

shells in to custody. The first couple of times it felt

up, marked the GPS location, and broke one egg

wrong harming incubating eggs, but the technique

open for DNA analysis. The University of Georgia

is important and actually getting your hands dirty

keeps track of the locations that the turtles lay their

by handling eggs and turtles and fighting off hogs

eggs and if the mama turtles chose nesting sites

bare-handedlymaybe that one is just in my

close to the place they hatched, which happens of-

headmakes the work feel immediately meaning-

ten. Recent research has found that chemical cues

ful. Like most wildlife protection, sea turtle con-

left by the little ones struggling down to the ocean

servation is a long-term process, but witnessing the

helps to memorize the location for the future. Re-

process of nesting and hatching elicits an emotional reaction and a deeper

understanding of the plight of
the turtles that researchers and
conservationists can share with
the public.
After recording the number of
eggs at the new nest, we assessed the surrounding area.

Sometimes a mom lays a nest too close to the

During that day on the beach, August 6th 2012,

high tide line of the intense, seven-foot tides of

there were five new nests laid, eight nest hatches,

Cumberland. If the nest gets soaked in water, they

and four inventoried, previously hatched nests. For

often fail to incubate and hatch. Instead, the eggs

a day in August, thats very unusual. Turtles nest

sit underground and rot; the smell is unbelievable

every two to three years, so I cant help but wonder

but the texture is even worse.

if 2015 will be another crazy season in the East

If we feel a turtle laid her nest in an unsafe part of

Coast or if 2012 was a fluke?

the beach, we do not hesitate to relocate a nest to

Since the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the

a higher or safer part of the beach. Some find the

Loggerheads have received a lot of money and pub-

practice controversial, as Mrosovsky (2006) sug-

licity for conservation efforts. Still, 42 years later

gests that the long-term handling and relocating

researchers know little about what the turtles do

of nests distorts gene pools. The question then

between hatching and returning to breed. So the

remains: which is better, leaving a nest untouched

best way to protect these crazy reptiles is to help

and increasing the risk of a deadly wash-over or

them on the beaches. And that is exactly what has

relocating and creating sea turtles with different

been happening since it became illegal to even

genes than

touch them. A recent study reported that the age

mom in-

until sexual maturation for a loggerhead is 23.5 to

tended? The

29.3 years. So if you take into account the time it

priority on

takes to get the turtle programs funded and actually


making a difference in the number of hatchlings

is hatchling

making it to the breeding age, 40 years sounds

success and

about right to see substantial results.

relocation is

Long before it was cool to care about sea turtle

an impor-

conservation or to save the whales, Richard Nixon

tant aspect.

signed the Endangered Species Act to give rights to

wildlife. This lead to the creation of conservation

and even educate others to do the same.

groups to hit the beaches as they say; to be turtle

You can ask any turtle volunteer and theyll tell

protectors. Although its not a perfect system and

you that its tough work but completely worth-

it seems an impossible task to fight the dozens of

while! You can get that instant gratification that

extinctions per day, the law made a huge differ-

everyone needs these days. Once a nest hatches

ence for sea turtle populations and worked because

you can actually

it hit the sustainability triple bottom line right on

watch the little ones

the head: People, Profit, Planet.

struggle and race to

Cumberland Island is a national seashore and thou-

the ocean. You can

sands of tourists visit the beach each year to spot a

even give them a lift,

sea turtle either laying eggs or hatching, both

but dont tell the bossman about it. Its even more

equally magical in my opinion. This experience is

gratifying when you check in on a nest and can tell

once in a lifetime for many people and instills love

that something had tried to dig into it but the pro-

and respect for nature as societal values. Turtling

tective screen stopped them and all that hard work

is an incredibly dirty job where volunteers learn

paid off!

about human-wildlife conflicts, but it is also, usu-

On that abnormal day of turtling I did not make the

ally, a fun time that makes it more likely volun-

connection between the triple bottom line princi-

teers will share their experiences with friends and

ples. I was just another nature nerd trying to do my

potentially recruit new turtlers. In addition to so-

part. It was not until I started my Master of Sus-

cial and environmental benefits of this activity, the

tainable Solutions at Arizona State University that

National Park Service profitsmore or lessfrom

I understood the full effort and years of transfor-

visitors to the island. Although this island was

mational work that had been accomplished for

once inhabited by wealthy plantation owners, it

those 700 nests to occur.

shows that with the right mindset and governmen-

But where did it all start? Did the destruction of

tal support, it is possible to revive an environment

the turtles habitat begin as an unintended conse-

I was just another

nature nerd trying
to do my part.

quence of the industrial revolution? Was it the

politics, we learn that sustainability principles can

Endangered Species Act that made citizens under-

be applied to almost any situation. On the surface,

stand that there are limits to nature? Was is the

sea turtle conservation seems to only touch upon

turtle girls quietly and religiously taking action to

the environmental aspect of the term sustainability

protect the species? Does it really matter where it

and should be left to the researchers to solve. But

started? While I do not know the answer to all

we can put a sustainability lens on this field to cre-

these questions, I am developing the analytical

ate an even more engaged public and supportive

skills, principles, and methodology of sustainabil-


ity so that I can seek to answer those questions.

Although a Master of Sustainable Solutions may
sound like a degree in energy efficiency or green
Casale, P., Mazaris, A., & Freggi, D. (2011). Estimation of
age at maturity of loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta in
the Mediterranean using length-frequency data. Endangered Species Research, 13, 123-129.
Cumberland Island Sea Turtles Conservation Program Activity Log. (2012) Retrieved November 16, 2014.
Hoarau, L., Ainley, L., Jean, C., & Ciccione, S. (2014). Ingestion and defecation of marine debris by loggerhead sea
turtles, Caretta caretta, from by-catches in the South-West
Indian Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 84, 90-96. Retrieved November 10, 2014.
Lamont, M., & Fujisaki, I. (2014). Effects of Ocean Temperature on Nesting Phenology and Fecundity of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta). Journal of Herpetology, 48 (1), 98-102. Retrieved November 10, 2014. http://
Phillips, K., Mansfield, K., Die, D., & Addison, D. (2014). Survival and remigration probabilities for loggerhead turtles
(Caretta caretta) nesting in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Marine Biology, 161, 863-870. Retrieved October 8, 2014.
The Extinction Crisis. Center for Biological Diversity. Retrieved November 16, 2014.