Nests on Jekyll Island
At approximately 2:30 AM Saturday, May 30 the Georgia Sea Turtle patrol discovered a leatherback turtle building a nest on the dunes between Blackbeard's restaurant and the convention center. It is the first leatherback nesting in the memory of most Islanders and could very well be the first documented leatherback nesting on Jekyll Island. Leatherback nestings on the Georgia coast are rare, to date in 2009 there has been one on Sapelo Island, one on Sea Island and now one on Jekyll.
While difficult to estimate to the untrained eye the female appeared to be between five and six feet long and in the range of 1,000 pounds. The nesting process from the time she was sighted until she returned to the ocean at approximately 7:30 AM was about 5 hours - she was probably on the beach for at least an hour before being seen, which suggests that she would have been on shore at least six hours in toto.
She first attempted to dig a nest at the toe of the dune and had excavated the cavity to hold the eggs, which was apparently unsatisfactory and abandoned. She moved higher up into the dune ridge, dug another nest, deposited her eggs (estimated to be around 80) and carefully and laboriously covered the nest before heading back to the ocean.
The nesting was closely observed and recorded by Georgia Sea Turtle Center personnel that had been alerted by the turtle patrol. Clearly this was a once in a lifetime event for many of the scientists, staff and interns who were present - all were agog and overwhelmed by the sheer size of the reptile. Photographs and movies do not adequately prepare you for meeting a leatherback at arms length without any barriers around. It can be humbling.
We were advised by some of the experts on hand that leatherbacks (similar to loggerheads) become sexually active between 20 and 30 years old. When they begin nesting, they will nest every third year. During the nesting year they may build 6 to 8 nests and deposit 80 to 100 eggs per nest. The nestings usually occur about 10 days apart. The eggs, which are larger than the ping pong ball sized loggerhead eggs will incubate in their sand enclosure for about 55 days. With a great deal of luck in 2040 some of the progeny may return to Jekyll Island.
Young Miss May Jekyll was escorted to ocean by all present who watched until she disappeared from sight about 100 yards off shore. With any luck at all, she will be back in ten days for another close encounter. One cannot help but wonder if under the new lighting ordinance, the now dark Jekyll beaches, are more inviting to leatherbacks. One can only hope.