“Crunch” was the sound I heard as the first wheel left the board walk and dug its way deep into the sand. I should have known this was as far as my trusted wheelchair would take me. Sand is high on my list of most challenging terrains to traverse—it’s up there with steps and gravel. About 50ft in front of me, I saw a crowd of over 200 people lining up near the surf anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center staff with several sea turtles that were scheduled to be released that day. Since I started working at the center only a few days ago, this was my first turtle release so I was equally excited and did not know what to expect. One thing was sure, if I was going to be a part of this experience I would have to get much closer!
Before I had time to concoct a plan, Mike – one of the many amazing AmeriCorps members working at the center – spotted me in the distance, came over, scooped me up, and carried me past everyone down to the release area. Once there, he sat me down in the sand in the middle of the roped-off square!
Okay, at first I was a bit shy sitting ‘front and center’ as people stared at me. The crowd looked at me expectantly, probably wondering if I was going to make an announcement! Within seconds my shyness faded, however, as I was overcome with excitement seeing the GSTC staff (the Teal-Team) approaching with the first turtle to be released.
It was magical to see the awe and happiness in the faces of children and adults alike as Dr. Terry Norton and his team carried Phantom near the water’s edge. For several minutes, that loggerhead sat motionless staring out onto the ocean. Holding my breath in suspense, I looked around as everyone’s eyes were fixed on Dr. Norton, who was now standing next to his turtle splashing him encouragingly with water. Perhaps Phantom was reflecting back on the last two years he had spent at the GSTC, or perhaps he was taking the time to say goodbye and thank you for his excellent care. The team gave him a little nudge into the water and in just seconds he disappeared into the waves leaving behind a cheering crowd.
It was not until later that summer that I fully understood just how much care, time, love, and dedication goes into rehabilitating these gentle creatures, who ultimately disappear into the distance in the blink of an eye!
That day, watching five turtles return to the ocean, the excitement and support of the public, and witnessing the compassion of the dedicated staff, I suddenly felt like I was becoming part of a greater cause. In just a few moments I was compelled to become an advocate for these magnificent animals. Also, being swooped up and carried across the sand that morning, I realized that sand would not be a barrier to my Jekyll adventures this summer!
My initial interest in working at the GSTC actually came from my interest in birds! I was a second year veterinary student at the University of Georgia and heard from a fellow vet student that Dr. Norton heads the GA SEANET program, which is dedicated to studying GA’s marine bird populations. The opportunity to learn about GA’s coastal birds and, at the same time, being immersed in the rehabilitation and conservation of sea turtles sounded like a dream come true!
Did I have initial hesitations about traversing Jekyll’s sandy beaches and working with 200lb patients? Sure! But as it turns out the biggest obstacle is not sand or steps, but having an “I can’t” attitude.
As the staff at the GSTC continuously showed me this past summer, for sand and steps there are simple solutions!
A ramp was added, a doorframe was widened, and bingo: 510 Maurice Road was ready for me to call it home for the summer. Most AmeriCorps members and veterinary externs live on the south end of Jekyll Island in student houses, and I was happy to join the family.
I will never forget briefly mentioning – early in the summer – that I really wanted to see a nesting sea turtle. Later that same night I heard “Sarah! Hurry! Turtle! Turtle!” as Greg, one of the AmeriCorps members, bursts into the student house. He came to pick me up and we immediately headed for the beach. Before I knew it Corey was carting me across the sand in the dark at record speeds, with the moon as our trusted flashlight. I witnessed in awe as a huge loggerhead carefully covered her nest and slowly crawled back to the ocean. Stunned by her determination and calmness, I watched her carry out the behaviors that her species had been programmed with for centuries. Catching a rare glimpse of this unique ritual, I realized the responsibility we shared of becoming ambassadors and protecting these beautiful creatures.
I also remember the time I mentioned to my roommate Bre that I wanted to see a sunrise. The next weekend we crawled out of bed before dawn, and once again (to the dismay of my very sandy chair) I was whirled across the sand. We witnessed not only a breathtaking sunrise but in passing one of the loggerhead nests, a hatchling was just making its way to the ocean trying to escape a swarm of fire ants! It was amazing to witness the herculean effort and determination of this tiny instinct-driven sea turtle.
At the GSTC, I loved being immediately integrated into the Teal-Team; I thoroughly enjoyed helping with the medical treatments and husbandry of patients. When it came to the 200lb patients, turns out, I wasn’t expected to lift them by myself! Allegedly, no one except for wildlife hero, Dr.Terry Norton, has ever performed such a feat anyways. In fact, the whole center operates through teamwork. Everybody helps each other, contributing their strengths with the common goal of doing what is best for the turtles. The teamwork I was able to be a part of was eye opening and inspiring, and I hope to mirror this in my own practice one day.
I quickly discovered that no single day was the same at the center. One minute we were in the middle of ‘routine’ medical treatments and one phone call later a stranded sea turtle was on its way to the center requiring emergency surgery. Despite high patient caseloads, and long working days, I was continuously astonished at the tireless efforts of the staff and their heart-felt dedication to the animals. These attitudes were truly infectious and I soon found myself completely submerged in all things related to turtle-care.
One patient that stood out to me was a loggerhead named Lucy. She, like many sea turtles, was victim to a boat strike and had severe cuts in her carapace where the propeller hit her shell. The wounds were deep and ridden with leeches and debris from washing up on the shore. It was no easy sight for this new member of the Teal-Team, unaccustomed to seeing the devastating destruction boats can inflict. Every few days, Lucy was brought into the treatment room for over an hour of wound care. Little by little, debris was carefully picked out of her wounds, followed by rinsing the tissues with copious amounts of antiseptic solution. Her shell was scrubbed with gauze and scraped free of barnacles a little more each day. While several sets of hands were busy tending to Lucy’s wounds, others were busy simply trying to keep this gentle giant on the treatment table, while still others were drawing up her medications and administering her fluids. Pretty soon, Lucy treatments became well-choreographed routines of teamwork and patience. She was a fighter. Her spirit and determination immediately won our hearts. Before returning her to the tank, her wound was packed with honey and the loose part of her carapace, separated from the rest of the shell by a deep cut, was secured with a stretchy bandage that Dr. Norton created from an athletic compression bandage used in human medicine. Sometimes veterinary medicine, especially turtle medicine, requires ingenuity and creativity!
Injuries that cut into the carapace, like Lucy’s, are at risk for damaging the spinal cord as the spine is fused with the top shell. A spinal cord injury was suspected in Lucy’s case not only due to the severity of her injury but also because she could not move her back flippers.
One afternoon, Lucy was loaded into the GSTC van, and took a little trip to a medical center in Brunswick, where a CT scan was performed to investigate the extent of her injury and spinal cord involvement. That day, and throughout the summer, I often witnessed human physicians and medical staff volunteering their efforts to help care for sea turtle patients. How inspiring, to see experts of many diverse fields collaborating for such a great cause!
Arriving at the center, it was very unexpected to see a brave loggerhead wheeling through the hallways on a gurney toward the CT machine, which was used on human patients earlier that day. Teal-team members clad in lead aprons, kept Lucy comfortable and safe in the donut-shaped imaging device; the other half sought refuge in the control room with Dr. Norton and anxiously awaited his assessment of the scan.
The scan was able to recreate a 3D image of her spinal column, allowing Dr. Norton to evaluate the damage from all angles. Unfortunately, as suspected, the propeller had obliterated several vertebrae and, most likely, the delicate spinal cord housed within it. It was with a heavy heart that we learned, Lucy would have to be humanely euthanized. While it was heartbreaking news, to have to say good-bye to such an inspirational patient, Lucy left behind a meaningful legacy. Not only did she educate everyone visiting the GSTC during her stay there, but her story was also later featured in a newspaper article and on a television program reaching an audience well beyond Jekyll Island. Lucy served as an ambassador, raising awareness and educating the public about one of the many dangers threatening the health of sea turtles today.
Her legacy would also live on in another way. A few weeks after we said goodbye to Lucy, dawn patrol reported some very exciting news. A nest that Lucy had laid just weeks before getting injured had successfully hatched! It was heartwarming to imagine that as many as 100 little loggerheads now embarked on their ocean adventure armed with Lucy’s spirit and determination.
Lucy’s story touched my heart that summer and I am grateful for the opportunity of getting to work with her.
When I wasn’t helping out with treatments and husbandry, or observing a surgery, I devoted time to my SEANET project. The GA SEANET (Seabird Environmental Assessment Network) program focuses on the causes of mortality and disease affecting GA’s marine bird populations. Programs such as this are instrumental in painting a picture of environmental and wildlife health and providing a means to monitor it. GSTC staff, interns, and volunteers patrol the beaches and bring any dead birds to the GSTC for further investigation by Dr. Norton and veterinary students.
My role this summer was to perform necropsies on these birds and prepare tissue samples to bring back to UGA for microscopic evaluation (or histopathology) at SCWDS (Southeastern Cooperate Wildlife Disease Studies). I felt like a detective, closely inspecting these birds, trying to find any clues as to what may have happened to them. Sometimes I found obvious injuries such as broken bones, but other times my findings were rather inconclusive and histopathology will hopefully help shed light on these cases.
One of the things I love about birds is their unique anatomy, and specialized adaptations. This project was a great chance for me to appreciate the comparative anatomy of many different bird species such as pelicans, gulls, and raptors—each with slight differences depending on their diet, behavior and environment.
While nothing is more satisfying and heartwarming for me than the successful rehabilitation and medical treatment of animals, this project opened my eyes to the critical information we can gain from performing necropsies on deceased animals. Compiling necropsy findings and the continued surveillance of shorebirds may make us aware of disease trends, the health of our ecosystem, and the extent of human impact on wildlife.
Looking back on my time at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, I picked up many golden nuggets along the way. Among these, I will never forget how a sea turtle’s heartbeat sounds just like the ocean. I also leave Jekyll having learned that honey is not just for bears – or peanut butter sandwiches – but it is, in fact, nature’s miracle for wound care!
The adventurous spirit of the GSTC Teal-Team, solidified a simple rule of thumb for me: forget “I can’t”. Instead: boldly go for opportunities when they present themselves! With passion and determination, the currency of magic, no obstacle (not even sand!) can get between you and the things that make you come alive.