Forsyth Interns at Ga. Sea Turtle Center

Sea Turtle Tagging and Nest Excavation for Summer Vacation

By Nicole Butler, CC&E Communications Graduate Assistant


Very few people get the chance to work with sea turtles along a beach during their summer vacation, but coastal environmental sciences senior Leah Forsyth did just that. From May to August, Forsyth was given the amazing opportunity to intern on the Sea Turtle Patrol Team at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.

Each night, from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., her team’s main objective was to patrol the beach looking for nesting female loggerhead sea turtleturtles. These mother turtles are at least 30-35 years old and weigh around 300-400 lbs., making it fairly easy to spot them from a distance, but the team always made sure to patrol the beach very cautiously throughout the night to prevent any false crawls (coming to the beach and ultimately leaving without laying a nest). 


“When we patrolled, we always looked for turtle tracks or a turtle,” said Forsyth. “When a turtle was spotted, we’d watch from a distance to try to determine her intentions.”


The main steps involved in sea turtle nesting are emerging (coming out of the water), body pitting (creating a spot to lay a    nest), digging (creating the egg chamber), nesting (dropping the eggs), covering the nest, and returning to the water. When a  female turtle is nesting, she is in a trance-like state. This allows the patrol team to obtain data while creating as little stress as possible for the turtle. Once it is determined that she is nesting, the turtle is checked for flipper tags, which are used for dentification and logged on a master list that holds previously recorded information on the turtle. If the turtle is lacking a flipper tag, she is given a name and tag. The patrol team also takes genetic and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) samples  to send to a lab at The University of Georgia.


“Once a nest was laid, we waited 70 days for incubation before excavating the nest,” said Forsyth."If activity was spotted within the nest, five days were added to the excavation date to give the hatchlings time to emerge naturally. Digging up egg chambers was like opening a present, with no idea what you were going to get!”


If live hatchlings were found, they were brought out of the chamber, laid on the beach and allowed to walk to the ocean on their own. Their actual crawl to the beach is extremely important for their development. The long crawl from the nest to the ocean is similar to a stretch before the marathon the hatchlings have to make to the Sargasso Sea (in the North Atlantic Ocean) where they live to maturity.


After the team excavated the nest and collected data, they reburied any material from the nest to provide nutrients to the beach, then calculated the success rate of the nest. Some of the nests had 99%, success while others had 0%.


And the success of the internship? Forsyth gives it high marks: “Being able to meet these turtles, watch them nest, and then see their hatchlings go back into the ocean was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget,” she said. “I enjoyed participating in the research and being able to educate beachgoers about turtles, beach ecology, and things people can do to help preserve this wonderful species."