Like the conservation of sea turtles as a whole, the excavation of a loggerhead nest involves lots of tedious work that sometimes yields heartwarming results.
Longtime sea turtle volunteer Tammy Smith showed how it’s done last week on Tybee. The nest, one she had relocated just north of First Street and marked with yellow caution tape, had hatched five days before. Smith was there Wednesday evening to document what had become of its eggs.
With 35 or so onlookers watching, she dug in with her hands, scooping out sand and feeling for leathery eggshells. She lined up the empty eggshells in rows to make them easier to count. Some of the turtle hadn’t hatched and never would, Smith said. She set unhatched eggs the size of ping pong balls in a separate pile. Then she spied what the crowd was hoping for, only not quite.
« We have a little one that didn’t make it out, » she said, displaying a perfectly formed but dead hatchling on her palm. « Unfortunately, that’s part of it. »
The disappointment lasted only until the next scoop.
« We have a live loggerhead! » Smith shouted, this time showing a wriggly baby.
Similar nest inventories will be repeated 3,242 times across Coastal Georgia by the end of the loggerhead hatching season in October. Wildlife supporters are giddy with the number of nests, a new record that shattered last year’s high of 2,319 nests. It’s the culmination of years of effort like this one on Tybee, involving hundreds of volunteers and staff who patrol Georgia beaches each summer day at dawn, identify and protect nests, and document the outcome.
Tybee has 13 nests this year, just a little above its average of 10, Smith said. But at the nest excavation, it was all about the turtles in hand.
« I know you’re ready to go to the water, » Smith told the straggler, who went into a bucket to be admired — but not touched — by all. As a threatened species, loggerheads can only be handled with special permission from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The final count for this nest: 105 hatched, 20 unhatched, three dead and, what everyone had really come to witness, three live. The crowd cheered as Smith and her crew released the hatchling trio at the water’s edge. Two disappeared quickly under the waves and one, a bit lethargic, lingered for more photo ops.
The « Born Free » moment was the best part, said Savannah Arrington, 13, who was visiting from North Carolina and had never seen a sea turtle up close.
« I wasn’t sure he’d go out there, » she said.
The hatchling did, and by season’s end an estimated 300,000 hatchlings will do the same from Cumberland to Little Tybee.