10/18/2017

From the Brunswick News: Turtle Patrol Alumni Pleased With Loggerhead Comeback

I was pleased to see the story in The Brunswick News a couple of weeks ago about the success of the loggerhead turtle nesting program on our beaches. According to the article, more than two thousand nests have been reported by the sea turtle monitors this season. Mark Dodd, sea turtle coordinator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, says the monitors normally have been counting about half that number annually.

Loggerhead turtles are magnificent creatures that almost defy description. To watch them appear suddenly from the ocean, lumber up the beach and begin the process of building their nests and depositing their eggs before returning to the water is a wonder to behold.

The loggerheads occupy a warm spot in my heart for other reasons, too. In 1981, a student from the University of Georgia, Ted Wansley, was hired for a project involving DNR, the Jekyll Island Authority and the UGA Ecology Department. His job was to patrol the beaches at night and collect the tag numbers of previously-tagged loggerheads. The data were then sent back to UGA in order to track population, migration routes and nesting activities of the turtles.

Young Mr. Wansley was dating a UGA student, Maribeth Yarbrough, who also doubles as our daughter. Somehow it came to light that he would have a female assistant with whom he would be working at nights and sharing accommodations on Jekyll Island. That went over like a lead balloon. Maribeth politely but firmly suggested that her brother, Ken, who was free for the summer assist him in the project instead. Ted wisely accepted her counsel – no dumb guy, he – and thus the historic Turtle Patrol came to be.

“We fought to stay awake, ran over sand dunes and got stuck in the sand,” Ted recalls, “We tagged the turtles, and collected their eggs and put them in a secret hatchery in the dunes.” One of the reasons as I recall for hiding the eggs was that there were those who considered the eggs an aphrodisiac and would steal them if they could find them in order to improve their love life. There are times we humans can embarrass even turtles.
Of course, boys will be boys. The Jekyll Island Authority provided the Turtle Patrol a Jeep Bronco and told them not take the vehicle to the north end of the island because they might get stuck and not able to get out when the tide rolled in. They promptly took the Bronco to the north end of the island, got stuck and had to be winched out of the mire. Ted says, “For some reason they took the Bronco away from us.” Go figure.

Today, Ted Wansley, PhD, is a long-time science teacher and former coach in the Fayette County School System. Maribeth is his wife of 27 years and Ken is a high school science teacher in Bartow County. It has been 30 summers since their experience and both boys were delighted when I told them about the success of the current program.

Ted says, “I am delighted to see the loggerhead numbers have come back and I am so proud of the folks that have dedicated themselves to the loggerhead conservation. It is hard to think of a more altruistic and noble pursuit than this. The turtles didn’t know they were endangered and can’t say ‘thank you.’ What can be more selfless than giving when there is no chance of recognition? Way to go, turtle friends!”

Ken remembers being awestruck the first time he saw a loggerhead crawl from the water to nest. “Their size, the sound of their labored breathing while on land, the perfect flask-shaped nest that the female excavated, all were amazing to experience,” he recalls.

Like his brother-in-law, Ken is proud to have had a part in tagging and monitoring the loggerhead turtles. “These animals have been around for 60-70 million years and have survived and even thrived without the involvement of humans. Indeed, it was human activity that led to their decline and human intervention that is now helping the population rebound. I am proud to have had a small part in helping the loggerhead species escape extinction and hope that one of the turtles nesting on the Georgia coast this year was released by Ted and me that summer. I know we made a difference.”

Today, they are too old to stay up all night and too smart (maybe) to sink a Jeep, but they sound like two excited papas. One of my mantras is that we should all leave the world better than we found it. These two guys have done their part. The loggerheads are back and better than ever. Way to go, Turtle Patrol!