“There, you see that?” Dr. Joe Pfaller stops the mule—a gas-operated four-wheeler— and points at the stretch of beach before us. It’s around 11 p.m. on an evening in mid-July 2019 and we’re swathed in darkness except for a trace of the moon, a smattering of stars and the mule’s headlights covered in red tape, giving the beach an eerie, dark-room effect.
I lean forward and peer into the darkness where inky shadows start to take form, then dissipate. I’m seeing things because I want to, not because I actually do. Joe inches the mule a little further then stops again. “There,” he whispers.
I again scan the shoreline and this time see a dark mass lurching towards the dunes. The mass is making good time—but its movement is awkward and unnatural. Tired.
Joe cuts the headlights and we watch in silence as the form heaves itself up the beach and onto the loose dunes. In the dark and at a distance, I can’t make out her edges, but she eventually seems to find a place to rest either because it’s the ideal nesting spot or she simply cannot bear to go any further. Based on the way she drops her full weight into the sand, I think it’s the latter.
I arrived on Wassaw Island, about 14 miles south of Savannah, late that afternoon by boat, escorted by Joe, the research director of Caretta Research Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure the protection of the once-endangered Northwest Atlantic Loggerhead population. During the gusty ride through the narrowest parts of the Intracoastal Waterway, Joe yells over the boat’s motor, explaining that the island has one of the highest densities of loggerhead nests in the state thanks to its protection as a National Wildlife Refuge—which prevents the kind of development that has crept into the other barrier islands— and the research, education, conservation and advocacy work Caretta has carried out there for nearly 50 years.
After about 20 minutes of negotiating the meandering waterways seemingly mapped into Joe’smemory, Wassaw emerges before us—a densely forested island showing no signs of development, save a dock and a structure tucked deep into the woods. “That’s the family compound,” Joe says.
Caretta launched in 1972 as a collaboration between Savannah Science Museum, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a family that has insisted both they and their compound remain private over all these years. Beginning in ’73, the family allowed volunteers to stay on the island for free and conduct walking patrols during the loggerhead nesting and hatching seasons running May through early October, tagging turtles and helping collect data.
In the mid-’90s, Kris Williams came on board as the executive director and continued to grow the program. “She got all the data in the database, and got vehicles in order and even better marking materials,” Joe says.
Early on, not a lot was known about sea turtles and their behavior. “We didn’t have any idea where they went, especially when they were little,” Joe says. “Tagging the individual turtles is what unlocked so many of the mysteries.”
Thanks to the data, we also know how to better protect them. Research conducted by Joe, his research partners and his predecessors has helped improve the loggerhead population immensely. The 2019 season shattered every annual record in Caretta’s history. While there has been an average of 100 nests the past 47 years, 480 nests were identified last summer. This is good news for the turtle population. This is also good news for us, considering the interconnected nature of the ecosystem—how throwing one species out of balance poses a potentially dangerous domino effect.
Joe assures me on the ride over that we will see some turtles—it is July, the middle of the nesting season and they had six turtles the night before. We arrive at a second dock, well out of the vision of the first, and unload supplies from the boat onto a mule. Then we jump on the mule and negotiate bumpy terrain for about 15 minutes with palm fronds scraping at our arms until we come into a small clearing that reveals a couple of rustic cabins—Caretta Research Project’s home base.
We meet up with Kris and a research intern and six other volunteers—a combination of high- school girls and mothers from around the country. It’s the volunteers’ third day and they already seem accustomed to the heat and dust and waiting for nightfall without digital entertainment. We gather in the central cabin that is too cramped for three people, let alone ten. The gas stove on which the dinner pots are boiling makes the July air even thicker, and I can feel the sweat dripping down the back of my knees. I greedily position myself at the picnic table under one of two overhead fans, trying to think myself cool in spite of the unbearable temperature. The cabin has neither A/C nor insulation. Portions of the walls are made up of metal screening to keep the mosquitoes out and allow the air to circulate. But this afternoon, the only thing that circulates is the fan.
Joe breaks the awkward silence that comes with the sudden intrusion from a stranger—me. He jumps into educator mode, holding court around the table with explanations about turtle biology. He entertains us with talk of scientific studies relating to nesting, mating and something about phosphorescence. Then Joe shows me the various data we’ll have to collect if we encounter a turtle, which all seems very overwhelming.
“It happens very quickly,” Joe says, which does little to assure me.
About 17 years ago, the family began charging Caretta for the use of the island, and for a nonprofit, additional costs present a particularly difficult challenge. Today, the organization functions off of private and corporate donations, grants, merchandise sales, and its biggest income: volunteer dues.
While Kris and Joe are the primary Caretta soldiers, these volunteers sign up for a week at a time and pay $825 to stay in a remote cabin with the weakest of Wi-Fi and a refrigerator that is held closed with a bungee cord, to endure relentless, flesh-eating gnats, heat, and caffeine-infused all-nighters for the chance to tag nesting turtles. This past summer, a total of 87 people opened their wallets and volunteered their time. Crazy? At first, yes.
Time snails along until 9 p.m. when Joe announces that we’ll head to the beach in about an hour once the sun is fully set. Everyone begins preparations, fitting headlamps, layering clothes and copious amounts of DEET on our sweaty skin, and filling bottles with stale coffee in order to stay awake until dawn.
When it is finally time to depart, Joe says I’ll go in the mule with him, and the others divide into two teams since there are only three mules. We load up and bump along a rough trail across the island through a swamp, busting through palms and overgrown bushes before spilling out onto the beach. Joe cuts the lights. The other teams continue in opposite directions down the beach while we sit there in silence. I’m having a hard time seeing anything though I can hear the surf in front of me.
“So, we just sit and wait?” I eventually ask.
“It’s going to be a long night,” he says, laughing.
We fall silent again. My eyes start to cooperate somewhat, bringing the ocean into vision. It has been a long time since I’ve sat on a beach at night. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked up at the stars. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat next to someone this long without talking. I take a deep breath, appreciating the salty breeze that promises to keep away the gnats and mosquitoes. A long night indeed.
Suddenly, the experience turns priceless.
The dark figure has been still for only a few moments when Joe silently motions for me to follow him on foot up the dunes towards her shadowy mass in the sand. As we slowly approach, single file from behind, she begins to take shape. She’s huge. Beyond that, the only word that comes to mind is “prehistoric”—like I’m looking at something from a different time and world, yet there she is. And here I am. Joe kneels down behind her and signals me to do the same.
He warns that we can’t get in her line of sight or we’ll startle her, so we kneel behind her, watching as she works away the dry sand to get to the dampness below. Once she creates a flat base, she rotates her rear side to side, using each back flipper to penetrate the sand, digging a hole. It’s an arduous process. She pauses from time to time, emitting what sounds like a deep sigh. The eventual depth of the hole seems impossible for a flipper to manage—about 20 inches. Once the hole is complete, she bears down.
The eggs tumble from her in erratic bursts. An average clutch yields about 115 eggs. Joe explains that once they begin to lay their eggs, female loggerheads go into a kind of trance, and that’s when we can perform the data collection, recording her tags, or tagging her if she has none, measuring her shell and plotting the nest’s location. It’s also an opportunity to get up-close and personal.
I reach beneath her and into the hole she’s dug, letting the eggs fall into my hands after being assured by Joe that I wouldn’t interrupt the process or harm the eggs. They are the size of golf balls, unexpectedly leather-like and warm, covered in mucus. I feel as if I’m breaking some code of nature conduct—interfering in something that suddenly seems so much bigger than myself.
I wipe my hands on my pants then run them gently over her shell. When I sweep away the collection of brown tube worms and algae, a phosphorescence emerges. It is an unexpected, seemingly unnatural light. Earlier in the cabin, I recall Joe talking about this, referring to it as bioluminescence and giving some scientific explanation that I didn’t retain. But here, in this moment, it’s simply magical.
Eventually, I move to face her. She’s focused, in another place and somehow completely unaware and unconcerned of my presence. Her eyes are wide, wise and tired. I’m physically so much bigger than her and yet, in that moment, I feel incredibly small.
It is easy to see why people fall in love with these creatures. Why they’re captivated by them. Why volunteers return year after year and pay money to spend sleepless nights in uncomfortable conditions to experience this miracle.
Joe’s father had first read about Caretta Research Project in a magazine and booked a week-long stay for the family in 1998. They only encountered one or two turtles the entire time.
“I don’t remember having an especially great time that year,” Joe recalls. But his parents encouraged him to come back the next year and they had 16 nests. “Back then, that was a ton,” he says.
Joe was hooked. He studied biology as an undergraduate and became an intern at Caretta during his sophomore year, which continued throughout his Master’s program. In 2011, during the second year of his Ph.D. program, Joe became the research director.
Since its inception, Caretta has had a profound impact on the loggerhead population, seeing an eight-fold increase on Wassaw alone. The organization has marked and studied 1,829 individual turtles. They’ve protected and monitored 4,923 nests, leading to the successful release of 342,380 hatchlings. Equally as important, the data Caretta collects supports important scientific research that provides insight on everything from migration patterns to climate change.
Over the next couple of hours, we encounter seven nesting turtles, which makes the sleep deprivation and the biting gnats almost imperceptible. Each one is a return visitor, including the remarkable loggerhead who is missing a portion of her shell, revealing a good bit of her rear flipper.
“Shark bite,” Joe explains. I run my hand over her shell and feel the deep, long grooves formed by the teeth that scrapped against her.
The action subsides after 2 a.m. We spend the hours before dawn alternately reliving the earlier excitement and silently looking across the shore. At sunrise, we head back to the cabin and the rest of the group is already dispersing to their beds for some much-needed rest. That evening, they’ll do it all over again. “It never gets old,” Joe assures me. Before today, I might not have believed him.
On the boat ride back to the marina, I’m equal parts exhausted and exhilarated. The sunrise brightens the tall green grasses and reflects powerfully off the water, revealing a pair of dolphins following us. I’m anxious to tell my friends and family about my experience—but more than that, I want them to experience it for themselves. It’s one of those rare times that words seem to fall short.
For more information on how to become a Caretta Research Project volunteer on Wassaw, call 912-704-9323 or email WassawCRP@aol. com.
ADOPT A SEA TURTLE
Nesting season for sea turtles has officially begun! Running May through October, sea turtle nesting and hatching season in Georgia have come to represent one of the most successful examples of how conservation efforts can have an effect on endangered populations of animals. Loggerhead sea turtles have been nesting in record numbers in the past four years, a true testament to the hard work contributed through research, outreach, nest protection efforts and plastic reduction/recycling.
The Ford Plantation is proud to support the Caretta Research Project’s Adopt a Sea Turtle program, which allows members to adopt one of our local Wassaw Island sea turtles. Turtle adoption kits include the following:
- Photo of your nesting mama
- Certificate of adoption
- Instruction for how to view your turtle’s nest online
- Special information card about your turtle and her previous nests
- Handmade glass holiday ornament
- Turtle adoption decal/sticker
New for 2020, all information about adopted turtles can be found on the Caretta Research Project’s website, and program participants can track their mother turtle and her nests throughout the nesting season. All proceeds from this program benefit the local Caretta Research Project. Additionally, Ford Plantation members who are interesting in visiting one of our barrier islands for an up-close view of these amazing turtles and their nesting habitat can contact our staff naturalist.