Loggerheads that decide to lay their eggs first thing in the morning are called dawn turtles and make for the best pictures! Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2015.

Nights Among Loggerheads with the Caretta Research Project

Posted on Posted in Adventures, Sea Turtles

I started my second summer in the world of sea turtle conservation as an intern for Caretta Research Project (CPR) on Wassaw Island in Georgia on May 13th. First order of business? Getting to the island. The second? Figuring out how to stay awake all night long, swimming in sand until ancient beasts crawl from the ocean to deposit 100 ping pong balls in the dune. Check and check.

A loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs on Wassaw Island, July 2015. Photo: Joe Pfaller.
A loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs on Wassaw Island, July 2015. Photo: Joe Pfaller.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work as a technician on Sapelo Island, patrolling the beach at dawn and collecting information for loggerhead research projects. I found nests using clues from the females’ tracks, collected a single egg for genetic identification of the mother, and covered nests with protective screens to keep predators like raccoons away. On Wassaw, we do the exact same stuff, with the added fun of interacting with the females as they are laying.

Gorgeous image of Beach Pond at the beginning of a long night patrolling for sea turtles. Joe Pfaller, 29 May 2015.
Gorgeous image of Beach Pond at the beginning of a long night patrolling for sea turtles. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 29 May 2015.

Life here is basic. I live in a cute little shack with a CRP director, and up to six volunteers live in a shack next door. Tuesday is for tacos, Friday is for frittatas. Sometimes I miss air conditioning and I’ve been eating all the snacks long before the resupply boat comes on Saturday. But they’ve got it figured out here. We welcome our volunteers on Saturdays (I welcome the snacks…) and give them a brief orientation describing what we do on the beach at night. They get a good look at our data sheets in the daylight before heading out around 9 pm, because after that, it’s all red lighting on the beach (turtles can’t really see red!). Then, we drive… and drive… and drive… until we see a turtle!

A loggerhead laying her eggs during a full moon. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.
A loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs under a full moon. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.

We use Kawasaki Mules to patrol the beach, driving back and forth all night long. When we finally spot a turtle, the fun really starts. First, we have to determine what stage of nesting the turtle is in. Is she still crawling up the beach, trying to find a good spot? Is she clearing out an area for a nest? Is she digging her hole? Laying? Covering her eggs? Crawling back to the ocean? During the first three stages, the turtle can be spooked pretty easily and may choose to return to the ocean without laying her eggs, so we have to be careful not to disturb her.

Once she starts depositing eggs in her hole, she enters a sort of trance, where nearly nothing will stop her from laying her eggs. This is when she’s the most vulnerable - to poachers, to predators… to researchers. We find it pretty helpful when a 300 pound reptile stops moving so we can collect some samples. Our work up includes shell and head measurements, reading external metal flipper tags and internal PIT tags, obtaining three skin samples, and collecting an egg from the nest.

We fill out a data sheet for each turtle activity, and take an egg from every nest for genetic research. Fun fact: our data sheets are pink because when the CRP was using blue paper, the ink wouldn't show up under our red lights! Photo: Sara Weaver, 2017.
We fill out a data sheet for each turtle activity, and take an egg from every nest for genetic research. Fun fact: our data sheets are pink because when the CRP was using blue paper, the ink wouldn't show up under our red lights! Photo: Sara Weaver, 2017.

We also need this information even if she decides not to lay eggs. This always presents a challenge because you have to conduct the whole process as these huge creatures forcibly propel themselves across the beach, trying to get everything done before she’s awash in the waves. And if there’s five turtles on the beach at the same time, you’ve really gotta be on your A-game not to miss anyone. Did I mention that it’s three in the morning?

After we complete the tagging, measurements, and biopsies, we focus on the nest she left behind. Does it need to be moved? We relocate nests if they’re in danger of being drowned by high tide. We also place temperature data loggers in the middle of some nests to get information on sex distribution (hotter nests render more females!). While we’re relocating or adding temp logs, we count how many eggs she laid. We record the coordinates of the nest using a GPS, and measure how far away it is from the dune and spring high tide line. All of the information we collect is added to a massive database that was started back in 1973!

Dawn turtles make staying awake all night worth it. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.
Dawn turtles make staying awake all night worth it. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.

One of the best parts of working on the Caretta Research Project is hanging out with volunteers and watching them struggle between falling asleep and being awake for the turtles. If you’re interested in volunteering, check out our website, follow our Instagram, and keep in touch over Facebook. And if you’d like to see more visuals about working with sea turtle nests during the day, check out this Imgur post I made last year on Sapelo Island. For more radical turtle photos, follow our Research Director, Joe Pfaller, on Instagram!

Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments! I want to share everything we do at the CRP with you. 🙂

Rewards for staying up all night with the loggerheads. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.
Rewards for staying up all night with the loggerheads. Photo: Joe Pfaller, 2016.

3 thoughts on “Nights Among Loggerheads with the Caretta Research Project

  1. Do you have any advice for a first-time CRP volunteer? I’ll be there the last week in July, and I know it will be hot….but I am super excited!! Thank you!

  2. Hi, Sara. I will be there the middle of July. I am sharing the experience with my students. May I have permission to share your blog?

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