Dig this: Georgia sea turtles reach nesting landmark

Caretta took her first breath, then looked at the surf. She moved toward it. Her siblings did, too.

Thus began a journey that lasted three decades, taking in some of the globe’s far corners: the waves west of Africa, the blue currents off New Jersey, the restless depths of the equator.

Eight years ago, she returned to Georgia. On a warm night, Caretta came out of the surf. With flippers the size of shovel heads she moved onto the beach, 400 pounds of determination. She clawed a hole, laid eggs. She covered them and returned to the waves that had taken her so far.

That’s a condensed version of the life of Caretta caretta, a loggerhead sea turtle whose nesting habits state Department of Natural Resources scientists have been following since 2008. This year, that turtle and others reached a conservation benchmark: They’ve created more than 2,800 nests on the Georgia coast. It’s an indication that a threatened species is rebounding.

The findings are enough to make biologist Mark Dodd cheer. The coordinator of DNR’s Sea Turtle Program, he’s been the equivalent of a worried dad — watching and fretting as delivery day draws near.

“We’re pretty excited to reach this milestone,” Dodd said Wednesday, not 24 hours after learning that nearly 3,000 nests dot Georgia beaches from the South Carolina line to Florida’s border.

Biologists in neighboring states are optimistic, too.

“It’s beginning to look pretty good for loggerheads,” said Ann Marie Lauritsen, southeastern sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re beginning to see better numbers.”

Numbers sufficient for a toast or two, said Dodd. “We’ll probably have a few parties,” he said, “and then it will be back to digging in the sand.”

He means that literally. DNR workers and volunteers periodically unearth turtle eggs and relocate them if the clutch is too close to the surf or to human habitation. For about two months, turtle enthusiasts watch each nest, waiting for that night when tiny heads pop out of the sand. The hatching begins now and lasts until autumn.

With each hatching begins one of this planet’s great sojourns.

In the film “Finding Nemo,” Marlin, the worried dad of a little lost clown fish, recruits sea turtles in his search for the tiny swimmer. The turtles hurtle along currents that shoot them to far away places.

In real life, sea turtles do follow currents, albeit more slowly. When they’re young, loggerheads find the North Atlantic Gyre, an ocean highway of stupendous reach. A circular system of currents, the gyre stretches south to north from the equator to Iceland; east to west, it extends from North America’s coast to Europe and Africa. In illustrations, the gyre is depicted as a series of immense, watery whorls; imagine an enormous fingerprint on the North Atlantic, and you get the idea.

Tiny turtles ride in the gyre, usually hiding in patches of seaweed that drift for thousands of miles. They travel this water road for a decade or longer until they’re sufficiently large to repel most predators. Juveniles at this point, the turtles roam the Atlantic for another 10 or 15 years until reaching sexual maturity. At that point, a turtle once no larger than a poker chip can fill an adult-sized bathtub.

Responding to an ancient urge, the big swimmers turn toward the strands from which they crawled 30 or so years earlier. In early spring, they mate a few miles off the coast.

“It’s spring break for the turtles, off the coast of Georgia,” Dodd said.

But the beach a turtle departed three decades ago may no longer resemble the one to which she returns. Human encroachment, as well as predators — feral hogs, for example, or raccoons — for years have had a negative impact on the rate of hatchlings making it to the sea. In 1978, loggerheads were listed at threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They have been under federal protection since.

DNR began counting nests in 1989, and has worked with others to enhance nesting since then. Shrimp trawlers now have devices designed to free turtles inadvertently snagged in nets. Volunteers routinely ask vacationers to turn off their lights at night during hatching season so as not to confuse the tiny turtles heading toward the surf. Agencies ranging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Tybee Island Marine Science Center have participated.

As a result, Georgia, which once hosted about 1,000 nests annually, has grown ever more hospitable for mama turtles. DNR, said Dodd, anticipated hitting 2,800 nests by 2020.

This year, he said, Caretta caretta may dig 3,000. He digs that.

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To learn more about Georgia’s sea turtle conservation efforts, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsC2Gmjkvd4

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