The Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island offers a long list of activities over the summer that allow residents and visitors alike to have unique, up-close educational experiences.
At the center, people can attend programs including “Meet the Patients,” “Creature Features” and patient feedings. Behind the scenes tours of the sea turtle hospital are also offered.
During sea turtle nesting and hatching season, beach walks are also available to provide visitors with a chance to see the nesting process firsthand. The “Ride with Patrol” program lets people become turtle biologists for a night, and the Gatorology 101 programs showcase the larger reptiles that reside on the island.
The Jekyll Island Authority, which supports The News’ Newspapers in Education program, staffs the Sea Turtle Center with talented, well-trained educators who can cater these programs to visitors of all ages, said Jessica Scott, spokesperson for JIA.
“Our education staff is phenomenal in that they have so much experience in education,” Scott said. “They also have that science/biology background.”
The center stays busy all summer long, said Anna Taylor, an education associate for the sea turtle center.
“We normally have one program on the hour during the summer, starting at 10 a.m. and the last one is at 4 p.m.,” she said. “It’s a variety of patient feedings, ‘Meet the Patients’ and ‘Creature Features.’ And sometimes puppet shows.”
During the patient feedings, the hospital pavilion’s elevated walkway is packed with attendees who have come to learn more about these creatures.
“You will get an introduction to one or two particular patients, their individual stories, why they’re here with us and what we’re doing for them to rehabilitate,” Taylor said.
“Meet the Patients” is a more in-depth discussion about individual patients, she said.
“Creature Features” include a lesson on one of the center’s education animals.
“We get to highlight a lot of really cool natural history about different species, like diamond back terrapins,” Taylor said. “Sometimes we bring a corn snake down here, if people will feel comfortable with it.”
Nighttime turtle walks will be offered through the month of July to provide an opportunity to see turtle nesting in action.
“You’re walking on the beach with an educator doing a beach ecology walk at nighttime for about an hour or an hour and a half,” Taylor said. “Educators are highlighting the ecology of the beautiful Jekyll Island and what makes it so unique.”
It’s not guaranteed, but the goal is to find a nesting turtle.
“When it happens, it’s magical,” Taylor said. “I normally cry almost every time I see a nesting female with folks, because you get to see how excited people get who have never seen a sea turtle before.”
This is a unique experience few get to have, said David Steen, a research ecologist at the center.
“They’re coming out at night in the cover of darkness, quietly doing their nesting and disappearing for a couple of years,” he said.
Sunrise walks will start in August, and guests will get to see research inventory of nests that have already hatched.
“(Research patrol members) are in the nest looking for live straggler hatchlings, so those that weren’t quite strong enough to make it out with their brothers and sisters,” Taylor said. “We also watch them count all of the egg shell pieces to calculate hatching success rates.”
Gatorology 101 classes are also offered at Horton Pond platform over the summer, to educate visitors about the gator species living on Jekyll.
“People are often surprised to hear about some of these large reptiles that we’re sharing the landscape with, especially on an island like Jekyll Island that’s home to both people and wildlife,” Steen said.
All the programs focus heavily on human impact and environmental stewardship.
“The conservation message, we try to make that the foundation of every education program,” Taylor said.
These programs are tied into the global recovery effort of the species, Steen said.
“We can generate all the data that we want, but this is a rare species that we’re talking about, one that is protected by the Endangered Species Act,” he said. “We really need a galvanized public that’s interested in and fascinated about these animals like we are.”