Jekyll Island supports habitat for a host of turtle species, from the diamondback terrapin to the leatherback sea turtle. Also right at home here - the loggerhead sea turtle, the Kemp's Ridley turtle, the green sea turtle, and the box turtle.
All these animals have a "shell" of a good time in Jekyll Island's marshes and along its shores.
Sometimes called just terrapin, this turtle species loves brackish coastal swamps, of which Jekyll Island has plenty. You can I.D. a diamondback terrapin by the diamond pattern on the back of its shell, resembling weird hieroglyphics.
Boy terrapins are smaller than girls (at about 5" vs. 7.5"). After an early spring mating, the ladies lay around 10 eggs in sand dunes. Eggs hatch in late summer or early fall.
Terrapins like seafood, pigging out on fiddler crabs, smaller fish and mollusks.
The diamondback terrapin is Maryland's state reptile. In Georgia, it's listed as a "species of concern".
This jewel-patterned reptile is edible, and is said to make a fine turtle soup.
Diamondback terrapins like to cross the causeway leading to Jekyll Island, and are subject to being struck by automobiles. They are often seen on the patient charts at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
The loggerhead turtle is the king of the Jekyll Island coast. They're the most abundant of the marine sea turtles in the United States. They prefer the coast, but sometimes will swim into inland waters, or hundreds of miles out to sea.
The loggerhead sea turtle is the largest of the hardshell turtles, sporting large heads with jaws strong enough to crack shells easily. They have a reddish-brown shell (called a carapace). Adult males grow about 3' (shell length), and tip the scales at around 250 lbs. on average - much larger than the diamondback terrapin.
They like to munch on conchs, crabs, and jelleyfish, with the occasional fish thrown in. Sometimes they'll even dine on seaweed.
Loggerheads may live over 50 years, and the females are known for their homing instincts, sometimes returning to Jekyll Island from over 1,000 miles to the beach where they hatched.
Nesting occurs on Jekyll Island from summer till fall. When they hatch, baby sea turtles (called hatchlings) shake off the sand and head for the sea. They're very vulnerable during this time to predation by gulls, ospreys, otters and other animals.
They're also adversely affected by artificial light, which may disorient them to the point where they can't find their way to the water. Jekyll Island has a lighting ordinance that addresses this very thing.
The leatherback turtle is the most migratory of all sea turtles - and the largest. Adult leatherback turtles can reach up to 8' and 2000 pounds. The shell is made up of small bones covered by a leather-like, mostly black skin with seven longitudinal ridges.
Leatherback nesting occurs from about March to July. A female may make around 7 nests during the season, laying an average of 75 2" dia. eggs. The eggs incubate for about 65 days, with hatchlings emerging at night. Leatherbacks migrate to their nesting beaches every 2 to 3 years.
The leatherback turtle family can trace its roots back over 100 million years.
Fun leatherback fact: Though a reptile like a diamondback terrapin, leatherbacks can maintain warm body temps in cold water.
How? They've adapted to both generate and retain body heat through their larger body size, changes in swimming activity and blood flow, along with a thick fat layer.
Kemp's Ridley Turtle
The Kemp's Ridley sea turtle has the dubious distinction of being the worlds most endangered sea turtle.
National Geographic states that "A 1947 amateur film showed some 40,000 female Kemp's Ridley turtles nesting in Mexico in a single day. Today, it is estimated that only about 1,000 breeding females exist worldwide".
Even with protected nesting sites and the use of turtle excluder devices in commercial fishing nets, the Kemp's Ridley turtle is having trouble making a comeback.
Kemp's Ridley nesting processions are quite a sight. During an arribada (as the activity is called), females can take over a beach, searching out the perfect nesting spot.
These turtles are relatively small, reaching about 2' in shell length, and weighing in at 100 pounds. Upper shell is greenish-gray, with white to yellow bellies.
Green sea turtles are not named for their shell color (which is brown or olive), but for their greenish skin pigmentation.
The green sea turtles are subdivided into 2 types - the Atlantic green (found normally off European and North American shores), and the Eastern Pacific green, found in coastal waters from Chile to Alaska.
Greens can weigh up to 700 lbs, making them some of the largest turtles in the world. Males are a little bigger than females. Their paddle-shaped flippers make them powerful swimmers.
Ever see a vegetarian sea turtle? The greens are herbivorous, dining on algae and sea grasses. Some juveniles, however, have been known to eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish and sponges.
The green sea turtle will sometimes beach itself just to sunbathe, warming up alongside resident seals.
Greens are prolific egg layers, depositing up to 200 eggs in a clutch. Although greens are endangered, they are still being killed for their meat and eggs.
Box turtles aren't sea dwellers. They have a high, domed shell, hinged at the bottom, which allows the turtle to withdraw into its shell and "close up house" to escape predators.
Boxes are omnivores, and eat a bunch of stuff, from fungi to frogs to flowers. Youngsters tend to be meat eaters; adults graduate to a mostly vegetarian diet - except for green leaves.
These turtles are subject to being struck by autos as they attempt to cross roads.
Fun box turtle Fact: Some boxes have been known to live over 100 years. No wonder they move slow!
Where can you see a diamondback terrapin? Or a loggerhead sea turtle?
A good place for turtle watching is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, right here on Jekyll Island. The Center is a wonderful facility, charged with educating the public on turtle lore. They also operate a Turtle Trauma Center, where hospitalized turtles are "doctored up", rehabbed, and sent back to their native habitats, either woodland, marshland, or the sea.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is especially kid-friendly, and a great venue for children of all ages to get the lowdown on turtles. They have many inter-active programs geared towards kids, and their Adopt-a-Turtle program lets you participate actively in the rehab and care of "your" turtle.
Call the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at 912-635-4444.