The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Sea turtle buffs plan island rescue facility
Byline: ANNA VARELA STAFF
Elizabeth Hines remembers visiting the beach on Jekyll Island a few years ago and being amazed: Under the rising sun, hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles were scampering toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Hines, who moved to the area soon afterward to work for the Jekyll Island Foundation, said most people seem to share her feeling that Georgia's loggerhead turtles are special.
"They're magical to people," she said. "I think it's because they're mysterious. We don't see them very often."
Now Hines is among a group of sea turtle enthusiasts who are working to establish the state's first rehabilitation center for the creatures. Supporters say the facility will include exhibit space and a gift shop, as well as surgery and radiology areas and tanks for sick and injured turtles. They envision a place where schoolchildren can learn about the animals. They also hope the center will boost tourism on the island, which gets about 1 million visitors a year.
The Jekyll Island Foundation has raised $1.4 million toward a $2 million goal to establish the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, said Hines, executive director of the foundation. The Woodruff Foundation in Atlanta provided a $750,000 challenge grant if the Jekyll group can raise the $2 million, Hines said.
The foundation has permission to renovate the island's 1903 power plant building. Work should start in March and take about 18 months.
The facility should be able to handle up to 20 turtles at a time, depending on their size.
Currently, if a sea turtle washes up sick or injured on one of Georgia's beaches, wildlife officials start making phone calls, hoping to find an opening at a center in the Carolinas or Florida. Sometimes, the animals have to be sent as far as Orlando or Sarasota. While they wait, the ailing turtles may end up spending days in Rubbermaid tubs.
"It just wasn't a good situation for the turtles," said veterinarian Dr. Terry Norton, who first proposed the creation of a turtle rescue center.
Sea turtles are endangered animals that don't reach reproductive maturity until they're about 35 years old. Scientists believe that only about one out of every 3,000 hatchlings makes it to that age, which is why they say it's important to save sick and injured adults that are able to reproduce.
"We see a variety of different problems, from fishhook injuries to propeller wounds to emaciated turtles," said Norton, who works at a wildlife refuge and research center on nearby St. Catherine's Island and will be on the staff of the new Sea Turtle Center.
"They've swallowed plastic bags and other trash that ends up in the ocean," Norton said. "Most of the things we see are human- induced problems. . . . We're very lucky to have such a unique species of animal in our own back yard, and we need to take care of it."
Norton estimates that 10 to 15 injured or ill turtles are found along the Georgia coast every year. That may not sound like many, but the reptiles are slow to heal, he said, and it's not unusual for them to need six months to a year of rehabilitation before they can be rereleased into the ocean.
Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, said state officials agree that the turtle facility is needed. Not only will it provide a place for the animals to heal, he said, but it will play an important role in teaching children to protect the environment.
"You get in front of a group of school kids and you talk about turtles and how cool they are, they get some of it," said Dodd, who will also be on the staff of the turtle center. "The educational component is so much stronger if kids can see you working on a turtle . . . so they can see the kinds of things we do to protect turtles, the kinds of injuries they sustain from human activities."
The Jekyll Island Foundation has permission to renovate this 1903
power plant building for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
Veterinarian Terry Norton, shown treating a loggerhead turtle, first
proposed the creation of a rehab center on Jekyll Island. / MARK
DODD / Georgia Department of Natural Resources
ATLANTIC LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLES
Scales: Reddish-brown with yellow borders on the top, sides of the
head and top of the flippers.
> AVERAGE SIZE OF HATCHLING
Length: About 2 inches.
Weight: Less than 1 pound.
> AVERAGE SIZE OF ADULT
Shell: Over 3 feet long.
Weight: Up to 350 pounds.
> OTHER FACTS
Life span: 50 years or more.
Maturity: 16 to 40 years.
Eggs: Laid throughout the summer. Females usually produce two or
three clutches per season.
Mating: Late March to early June.
Sources: NOAA, Associated Press; research by ALICE WERTHEIM / Staff
(Copyright, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution - 2004)