The world has only seven species of sea turtles and five are found along Georgia's coast: loggerhead, green, leatherback, Kemp's ridley and hawksbill. The loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is the only species to nest regularly on the state's barrier islands. Green (Chelonia mydas) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) turtles are primarily tropical nesters but occasionally nest on Georgia beaches. All five species, with the exception of the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), seasonally forage in or migrate through Georgia's coastal waters.
All species of sea turtles found in Georgia are protected by state and federal law, principally by the Endangered Species Act. The Kemp's ridley is the most endangered of the sea turtles, but all species are at risk. The loggerhead is listed as threatened worldwide and is the focus of much of the DNR Wildlife Conservation Section's marine turtle conservation efforts.
Like all sea turtles, the loggerhead is completely adapted to life in the ocean and depends on land only for reproduction. Only the female returns to the beach. When female turtles reach maturity (30–35 years), they leave the water and dig a nest in the sand on the soft-sand beach, deposit eggs, cover the nest and return to the water. In each nesting season, a female may lay up to six clutches, each containing 100–150 small, white, leathery eggs. For each adult female, this process takes place every two to three years. After incubating for about eight weeks, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings emerge and scamper to the ocean.
Loggerheads nest in the U.S. from Virginia to Texas. Nesting season in Georgia is late May to mid-August. Generally, female turtles nest on the same beaches each season, with some variations. It is widely believed that hatchlings, when grown, return to their natal beaches to nest. In the U.S., Florida has the largest nesting population of loggerheads. Since 2011, surveys by the DNR-coordinated Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative have charted Georgia nest totals at or near 2,000 per season, except for 2014. According to DNR analysis, nesting is trending upward at about 3 percent a year.
DNR coordinates sea turtle conservation efforts in the state. Because loggerhead nests are subject to predation, poaching and habitat destruction, DNR leads the Sea Turtle Cooperative to mark, protect and monitor nests during spring and summer. Beachfront business owners and residents are also urged to reduce lighting of the beach during nesting season in order to avoid attracting hatchlings, who mistake the lighting for moonlight and are drawn away from the ocean.
In the water, sea turtles face threats including entanglement in or ingestion of plastics, accidental drowning in shrimp and fishing nets, collisions with boat propellers, poaching and habitat destruction. In addition to monitoring nesting activity, DNR cooperators monitor beaches for strandings, or dead turtles washing up on the beach. Strandings are the primary index to at-sea mortality of sea turtles. Conservation measures including the use of turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, by shrimpers and other commercial fishermen have reduced sea turtle deaths, yet these species still face a challenge to survive.
In of 2005, DNR, in cooperation with University of Georgia, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, monitored inter-nesting and post-nesting migratory movements of loggerhead nesting females. Satellite transmitters were attached to 12 nesting females on Blackbeard and Sapelo islands. The information collected was used by fishery managers to reduce the probability of interactions between turtles and commercial fisheries. Tracking maps are posted at seaturtle.org.
The public's help is needed in conserving loggerheads and other sea turtles. Tips include:
- 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 or disturb nesting turtles.
- If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, observe at a distance.
- Don’t disturb turtle tracks. Researchers use them to identify species and mark nests for protection.
- Do not touch or disturb nests or hatchlings.
- Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food.
- 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 28 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2015 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and 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.)
All species of sea turtles found in Georgia are protected by state and federal law, principally by the Endangered Species Act.