Watch Out for Hatchlings! Sea Turtle Hospital on Georgia’s Jekyll Island

Two staff members, one a veterinarian and another a hospital tech stood over the surgical table, one held an injured turtle, about the size of a hand, and the other was checking the wound that was now healing from an amputation. A layer of fish skin had just been applied to the cut which we learned, aids in the healing process, like a band aid, keeping the moisture in. For the staff at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, located on eastern coast, this is what they do: treat the incoming turtles, brought in by the community, injured in a boat or car strike, or when in winter they get “cold stunned.” In another room, there’s a handful of above-ground pools with a turtle swimming about, on the mend and hoping to get its sea legs back and return to the wild. 

The staff monitors the recovery of their patients in the swimming pools. 

Part of the crowd who had come to visit the enter on this warm afternoon were huddled around the outdoor tables where researchers were illustrating the work they do with these popular reptiles. One was filing a notch onto a turtle’s shell to identify it later; another was illustrating how to determine its gender.  What is it about the turtle? Why do we love them, flock to see them at aquariums, keep them as pets?  Maybe, as the website lithub.com says, they don’t scare us, they live to be hundreds of years old, and date back over 200 million years. Kids learn to love them early on from the popular Teenage Ninja Turtles, or Pixar’s Finding Nemo movie – who couldn’t love the cool surfer dude, Crush, who leads a terrified Nemo back home. I’m sure it’s all of the above. 

One turtle gets a transmitter on its back.

The Center is located on Georgia’s Jekyll Island which is only about 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.  This little island has its own story to tell, but it was the Center that was our focus for the day’s visit. Parts museum, educational center and hospital, the site offers info kiosks that can be enjoyed by kids and their grownups to learn the fascinating facts about turtles, their varieties, their life cycles, their ocean journeys. Most remarkable is hearing about the new baby sea turtles’ hazardous trek to reach the safety of the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea with its floating, brown algae, considered a “nursery” for these young’uns.  Mama sea turtles will emerge from the ocean, usually under the cover of darkness to build a nest in the sand and lay around 100 eggs.  Mom covers the eggs with sand, and heads back to sea – her work is done.  It’s estimated that only 1 in a 1,000 will survive, with most falling victim to dehydration, birds and crabs.  

Who couldn’t love this face?

But because of successful initiatives that focus on protecting sea turtle nesting sites, their survival rates have increased, says Michelle Kaylor, the hospital’s Director. “That means,” she says, “more opportunities for people to see this most significant moment in their life cycle.”  Sea turtle fans can take advantage of the educational programs and events that the Center provides such as “turtle walks” at sunrise or sundown to learn more about their nesting activities. There’s a “behind the scenes tour” where guests can have a private viewing of the hospital and food preparation, help make a meal, or observe a medicinal injection.  The night patrol ride provides guests with the opportunity to be field biologists and ride the beach buggy in search of their activity.  (It’s immersive and rugged, so make sure to read up on the details before joining up.)

Sea turtle surgery 

There’s a long-ago phrase that came to mind while on this visit, and it has to do with how humanity can be judged by how it treats the smallest among it, so it’s gratifying to see the work being done by the staff, the researchers and volunteers in caring for a species that’s one of the slowest on the planet, weighs about a pound at birth, and can live a very long life.  In one bit of dialogue from the movie Finding Nemo, the character Marlin asks Crush how old he is, and his reply: “Hundred and fifty, dude, and still young. Rock on.” 

When planning your trip to the Center, leave some afternoon time to luncheon at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, a throwback to the Gilded Age where the rich and famous vacationed a century before.  We enjoyed a hearty lunch beside the bay at The Wharf restaurant and then walked it off at Driftwood Beach, where ancient driftwood monuments line the shore.  Jekyll Island, according to USA Today, “is one of the best Southern beaches for a weekend escape.” 

It’s also a place to take it slow and watch out for turtles.  

For more information, go to the website for Jekyll Island

Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff

About MJ Hanley-Goff (179 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and also college essay writing help to students. MJ has recently made St. Augustine, Florida her home base, and is thrilled and honored to continue to write for WAT and the amazing adventures it offers. Despite the new zip code, MJ will continue to keep a pulse on New York events, but will continue to focus on the creative thinkers, doers, and artists wherever they are.