TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WSAV) — Local researchers and scientists who work to protect turtles want to remind drivers to be on the lookout during nesting season.
As many pregnant female diamondback terrapins search for a place to lay their eggs, a large number of them risk getting crushed to death while crossing Highway 80 leading to Tybee Island.
The thousands of drivers headed to the beach over Memorial Day weekend spelled trouble for the turtles.
Jordan Gray, communications and outreach coordinator for the Turtle Survival Alliance, estimates about 80 turtles were run over and killed over the three-day holiday weekend.
Researchers say it’s an above-average number. For a typical nesting season, around 200 turtles are trampled by passing cars.
“Each Memorial Day weekend, we see a large amount of deaths on the causeway,” Gray told WSAV.com NOW. “This year seemed to be higher than usual, but we’ve also seen a large spike in terrapin activity in 2020.”
He says conditions were perfect last weekend for terrapin nesting.
“We saw a high tide and also received rainfall during the night, which oftentimes initiates terrapin crossings during the day,” Gray said.
Experts say Fort Pulaski and the Lazaretto Creek boat ramp are two turtle hotspots this time of year, but they’ve observed activity along the entire stretch of highway between Wilmington and Tybee islands.
With more people visiting Tybee Island as shelter-at-home orders lift, those turtles face a greater threat.
“It is from the earlier part of May through the late part of June into the early July part of the summer that the animals are the most vulnerable,” Georgia Southern University (GSU) biology professor Dr. Kathryn Craven told WSAV.com NOW.
“They’re laying their eggs and they’re moving around crossing the highways, and that’s when we need to be the most aware that they’re out here on the roads,” Craven said.
She’s involved with GSU’s Terrapin Educational Research Program of Savannah (TERPS) program, a student-run organization co-founded by Gray during his time as an Armstrong State University student.
TERPS helps raise awareness for the issues impacting diamondback terrapins in the Savannah area. When pregnant turtles get hit by cars, it often kills the future babies, as well, says TERP researcher Cheyenne Anderson.
“The way we collect that data is we can either use an app to record where these females have been hit, or we can take pictures and then it records the waypoint,” Anderson said.
“Currently, my camera roll is filled with lots of gruesome images of these individuals who have lost their lives on this road,” she added.
It’s far from a fun profession, but it’s a labor of passion and love, she says.
“To walk this highway looking for these turtles is [tough], it’s gruesome research to have a pregnant mother as your research subject, but we do it for hope,” Anderson said, adding, “[We] hope we can change this and get something done, either get a fence [installed along the road] or more signage to make people aware of what’s going on.”
Some drivers are aware and want to do their part to help.
Heather Mathis was driving out to Tybee last weekend with her husband when she spotted a few turtles along the way.
While one of them didn’t make it, she and her husband stopped twice to get two others across the road.
“[My husband] didn’t do anything dangerous, but we stopped traffic and I got out,” Mathis told WSAV.com NOW, “I picked the turtle up, carried it across the road in the direction that it was already going, and I put it down and it scurried off towards the river.”
She says rather than being irritated at the traffic holdup, some drivers behind them instead cheered and thanked her for her kind gesture.
“Waiting five minutes to get to Tybee, you’ll live, but by not waiting those five minutes and letting the turtle cross, the turtle will not live,” Mathis said. “It’s life and death to the turtle, and it’s not life and death for you to get to Tybee five minutes sooner.”
The turtles that get injured have a better shot at recovery and survival if they get the medical treatment they need.
Most of the turtles brought to Pooler-based Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital of Georgia were hit by vehicles, said veterinarian Dr. Stacey Wilkinson.
“Some are fixable, some are not, it depends on the extent of the damage,” Wilkinson told WSAV.com NOW. “However, I believe that most are avoidable, as it’s not like a turtle is darting out in traffic.”
How you can help
For anyone wanting to help a turtle get across the road safely, experts say to think of your safety and that of other drivers first.
“One way you can help is slowing down, pulling over onto the shoulder and helping that animal cross,” Anderson said.
Experts say it’s important to do what Mathis did and place the turtle on the side of the road in the direction it was originally heading. Gray suggested keeping in mind the times of high tide each day you head to the beach.
“Have heightened awareness during a three-hour window: one hour before and two hours after high tide, because that is when the terrapins are going to be crossing at their highest frequency,” Gray said.
If a driver finds an injured turtle, he says they’re welcome to contact the TERPS hotline for assistance at 912-659-0978.