Every summer, the sandy dunes of Georgia’s barrier islands are host to hundreds of seasonal visitors–nesting loggerhead sea turtles, who journey onto land to lay their soft, leathery eggs. The warm sand dunes act as a nursery ground for the vulnerable eggs, which take around sixty days to develop. Hatchlings escape from the nest at night, hoping to evade hungry predators as they scramble to the sea. Once in the water, only the female will ever return to land, after approximately 34 years at sea. She will visit the same general stretch of beach where she herself was born, laying an average of four clutches every 2-3 years.
Since the time of the dinosaurs, sea turtles have existed throughout the world’s oceans. Today, all seven species are listed as federally threatened or endangered. The causes for this decline include capture and drowning in commercial fishing nets, boat strikes, habitat loss, and many other human-caused dangers. While estimates vary, it is believed that as a result of these threats, only about one in four thousand sea turtles will survive to reproductive maturity.
You can make a difference for Georgia’s sea turtles by following these simple steps:
- LIGHTS OFF! Leave your bright lights at home (or carry red “turtle-friendly” lights). White lights can deter nesters and cause hatchlings to crawl the wrong way. If you’re staying the beach, turn off exterior lighting and draw your shades at night during turtle season (May-October).
- Take your beach chairs and gear home with you – discarded gear causes unnecessary obstacles for turtles and may cause them to false crawl. Fill in sandcastles and holes, which create roadblocks for nesting mothers and hatchlings.
- Never litter. Ensure all trash, including plastic bags and six-pack rings, are properly disposed of or recycled.
- Slow down in the water! Boat strikes account for a significant number of sea turtle deaths annually.
- If you’re ever lucky enough to encounter a nesting sea turtle or hatchling, please watch from a safe and quiet distance and never disturb a nest. All species of sea turtles in Georgia are protected by state and federal laws.
- Only purchase wild Georgia shrimp. Shrimpers in the U.S. are required by law to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), and Georgia DNR conduct surveys to ensure compliance.
- To report a dead or injured sea turtle, please call 1-800-2-SAVE-ME.
© Brad Winn
Georgia’s barrier islands provide a rich environment for shorebirds, supporting tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds of more than 20 species annually. Our coast is especially important to migrating and wintering red knots (Calidris canutus), semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) and piping plovers (Charadrius melodus). Georgia has documented more than 50% of the threatened rufa red knot subspecies on our coast. We also host significant numbers of nesting American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers.
In 2017, in recognition of our coast’s global significance as critical wintering and foraging habitat, the Western Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) designated the Georgia barrier islands as a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance for shorebirds! Notably, this made Georgia’s 100-mile coast the 100th WHSRN site and joining the Altamaha River Delta, which was dedicated as a site of regional importance in 1999. One Hundred Miles led the nomination process along with our partners at the Georgia Shorebird Alliance. The designation brings increased awareness to our region, promotes our nature-based economy, and brings international funding opportunities for conservation and research to our coast.
Shorebirds lay and incubate their eggs on top of the sand, leaving them vulnerable to dogs, beachgoers, and the elements. There are many simple steps you can follow to share the beach and protect these long-distance flyers:
- Stay off the dunes. The dry sand and dunes above the high tide (“wrack”) line are where shorebirds and sea turtles are nesting. Shorebird eggs are camouflaged to blend in with the sand and can be notoriously hard for beachgoers to spot. Watch where you set up camp. If birds are acting aggressively towards you, it’s likely that you are too close to a nest.
- Keep your dogs on a leash! While fun-loving, our four legged friends can disturb nests and chase birds and their chicks. Leave your dogs at home or keep a close watch.
- Educate yourself, and others! A great first step is to take our Master Birder course, or sign up for updates on the Georgia Shorebird Alliance Facebook page.
© GADNR (NOAA permit #15488)
The numbers are grim for Georgia’s state marine mammal, the North Atlantic right whale. With only about 400 individuals remaining, the species was officially listed as critically endangered in 2020. In the 1700s, the species was considered the “right” whale to hunt because it swam close to shore, produced high quantities of baleen and oil, and had thick blubber that kept it afloat after being harpooned.
Today, the whales are becoming entangled in commercial fishing line (from the lobster and snow crab industries) and vessel strikes. It is estimated that nearly 84% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. Both cause slow, painful deaths and catastrophic losses for a species that is hurtling towards extinction in our lifetimes.
The Georgia and north Florida coasts are the only known calving ground in the world for this majestic marine mammal. Every winter, females come to our shallow, temperate waters to give birth. Yet birth rates are not keeping up with the numbers needed for recovery—slowed in part by declining food resources and a warming climate.
Unfortunately, as companies attempt to open up the Atlantic coast for seismic air-gun blasting—used in the search for oil and gas below the ocean floor—North Atlantic right whales will face even more threats. Read more about the work we’re doing to prevent this from happening.
Here’s what you can do to protect right whales:
- Federal law requires that vessels and aircraft (including drones) stay at least 500 yards away from right whales to reduce the risk of harassment and collisions with boats.
- Vessels 65 feet and longer must slow to speeds of 10 knots or less in Seasonal Management Areas along the East Coast, including the calving and nursery area off Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Although this federal rule does not regulate smaller boats, collisions with small boats have injured and even killed whales! Please maintain a safe speed and watch closely for right whales and other marine mammals.
- Report all sightings. Call Georgia DNR (800-2-SAVE-ME), NOAA (877-942-5343) or radio the Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16.
- Limit or forgo your consumption of lobster and snow crab. These fisheries are currently responsible for many of the entanglements that kill and injure right whales.