Rider, a loggerhead sea turtle raised at the UGA aquarium at Skidaway, seemed reluctant at first to make the ocean his home.
His keepers put tags on the 3-year-old turtle and escorted him to Wassaw on a motorboat Tuesday. But when Devin Dumont and Lisa Olenderski lifted him from his carrying tub and placed him on the beach he seemed content just to sunbathe. Moved to the water’s edge, he turned to face the beach three times. Lifted into a slough, Rider paddled in circles. It wasn’t until he found himself in knee-deep water and launched by a gentle push that the 50-pound loggerhead nosed into a wave and swam seaward.
He periscoped his chunky head up and looked back one last time as if to say goodbye.
“They always go a little differently,” said Dumont, curator of the UGA Marine Extension and Sea Grant Aquarium. “Sometimes it takes them a little while to get their bearings.”
Rider should’ve made his inaugural beach scramble three years ago as a hatchling. Instead, he didn’t emerge from his nest on Wassaw. He would’ve died there, but researchers with the Caretta Research Project found him on a routine post-hatching nest inventory and gave him to the UGA Aquarium. There he repaid the favor by serving as a loggerhead sea turtle ambassador, raising awareness about sea turtles among the estimated 70,000 people who came through the facility during his tenure.
Rider was even a university educator. Sea turtles have true color vision, said Amanda Mahoney, assistant professor of behavior analysis at Savannah State University. That allowed her class to test the color preferences of Rider and the aquarium’s younger turtle, Lefty, by hiding food in containers of various colors. Both Lefty and Rider prefer bright yellow. In tests of food preferences Rider was all about a gel food packed with fish and vitamins.
“It’s very nutritious, so it’s a good thing he liked it; he’s a healthy eater,” she said. Aquarium staffers fed Rider live food including blue crabs and mussels for more than a year to make sure he could fend for himself and to prevent him from associating a good meal with people.
Loggerheads are Georgia’s most common sea turtle, nesting on beaches from Cumberland to Little Tybee. They crawl ashore on barrier islands, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night.
Georgia’s nesting had dipped to a low of 358 nests in 2004. But it’s bounced back with two record-setting years culminating in 3,289 nests last year. Credit goes in part to the protection of adults from accidental capture and drowning in shrimp nets. That protection of breeding adult turtles is augmented by the work of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, a state-coordinated network of about 200 volunteers, researchers and agency employees, that patrols beaches daily during nesting season.
Similar efforts in Florida and the Carolinas have nests trending upward in those states as well.
This year’s nesting season kicked off Monday when the first loggerhead nest was discovered on Cumberland Island. Nesting continues through July, with hatching following into October.
Mark Dodd, Georgia’s sea turtle coordinator, expects fewer loggerhead nests this year, but still more than average.
“It’s rare to have two big years in a row and almost never three,” said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section.
Rider, whose sex is unknown, may return to Wassaw to nest one day if he turns out to be she. For now, though, Rider has lots of maturing to do. Joe Pfaller, research director with the Caretta Research Project, expects the loggerhead to join peers in the Sargasso Sea using the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.
“It should find its way where it wants to be,” he said.