A big part of what UGA Extension does is its 4-H youth program. We had almost 170,000 youth involved in the program last year.
The 4-H idea is simple: help young people and their families gain the skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy.
I got to do my part with these proactive/hyperactive forces on a weeklong trip to UGA’s Burton Marine Resources Camp on Tybee Island with 157 sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Although it was as hot as the inside of a ridiculously humid active volcano on Tybee Island the week of July 4th, we got to do some amazing stuff. My favorite was the sea turtle class.
According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia coast is unique in that it hosts five of the world’s seven sea turtles. They include the loggerhead, green, leatherback, Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill. The loggerhead is the only species to nest regularly on the state’s barrier islands. The loggerhead is about 36 inches long and weighs about 300 pounds.
The largest of the sea turtles weighing in at as much as 1,500 pounds is the leatherback. The leatherback as well as the green sea turtle are primarily tropical nesters but occasionally nest on Georgia beaches. All five species, with the exception of the hawksbill, seasonally forage in or migrate through Georgia’s coastal waters.
All sea turtle species found in Georgia are protected by state and federal law, principally by the Endangered Species Act. The Kemp’s ridley is the most endangered. The loggerhead is listed as threatened worldwide and is the focus of much of the DNR Nongame Conservation Section’s Marine Turtle Conservation Efforts.
Like all sea turtles, the loggerhead is completely adapted to life in the ocean and depends on land only for reproduction. Only the female returns to the beach. When female turtles reach maturity (30-35 years), they leave the water and dig a nest in the sand, deposit eggs, cover the nest and return to the water. This is about a two-hour process. In each nesting season, a female may lay up to six clutches, each containing 100-150 small, white, leathery eggs. For each adult female, this process takes place every two to three years. After incubating for about eight weeks, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings emerge and scamper to the ocean.
Loggerheads nest in the U.S. from Virginia to Texas. Nesting season in Georgia is late May to mid-August. In the U.S., Florida has the largest nesting population of loggerheads. Since 2011, surveys by the DNR-coordinated Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative have charted Georgia nest totals at or near 2,000 per season. According to DNR analysis, nesting is trending upward at about 3 percent a year.
Because loggerhead nests are subject to predation, poaching and habitat destruction, DNR leads the Sea Turtle Cooperative to mark, protect and monitor nests during spring and summer. Beachfront business owners and residents are also urged to reduce lighting of the beach during nesting season in order to avoid attracting hatchlings, who mistake the lighting for moonlight and are drawn away from the ocean.
A really cool thing we learned about tracking sea turtles is what researchers call “CSI for sea turtles.” The process uses DNA collected from one egg from selected nests to answer questions about nesting habits of loggerhead sea turtles. Through this type of information, researchers have gathered the genetic fingerprinting of 7,573 sea turtle mothers who laid eggs in more than 34,500 nests.
The Burton 4-H Center on Tybee Island is home to Zoe, the loggerhead sea turtle. Rescued five years ago as a straggler from her nest, she is now ready to return to the wild. As an ambassador for sea turtle conservation with the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education program, Zoe has made friends with over 40,000 people. Zoe will be released back into the wild in a ceremony on Sept. 23rd.
The Environmental Education staff at the center is working to obtain a satellite tracking device to mount on the shell of Zoe..
For more information on Zoe’s big release, look on Facebook for Sea Turtle Release “Going with Zoe.”
Reach Campbell Vaughn, the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing email@example.com.