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Once a straggler, sea turtle set free

Once a straggler, sea turtle set free

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.

“It was like a switch that first time we put a crab in,” Dumont said. “He saw it and that was it.”

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.

Working under a federal permit, members mark, monitor and protect all nests. This labor-intensive effort protects nests from predators like racoons, which used to destroy up to 95 percent of eggs.

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.

Join Caretta Research on WassAW

Each year, for 17 weeks during the summer, groups of volunteers, ages 15 and up, travel to the beaches of Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge to help monitor egg-laying and hatching activity and to collect data on the loggerhead turtles. Volunteer weeks start May 6.

Spots are still available for some weeks this year with the $795/person/week fee helping to fund the ongoing research. For more information call 912-704-9323 or visit http://www.carettaresearchproject.org/

WHAT YOU CAN DO

All marine turtles in Georgia are protected by state and federal law. To help conserve these species:

• Minimize beachfront lighting during sea turtle nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights.

• When walking the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting.

• If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, remain quiet, still and at a distance.

• Leave turtle tracks undisturbed. Researchers use them to identify the species and mark nests for protection.

• Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food and die when this trash blocks their intestines.

• Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs and umbrellas from the beach at night. They can deter nesting attempts and interfere with the seaward journey of hatchlings.

• Protect beach vegetation that stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.

• When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles. About 22 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2016 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and immediately contact DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363).

• Also report any dead or injured sea turtles seen at 800-272-8363. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.)

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Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia DNR