Caretta Caretta Caretta

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That egg hunters might wipe out the Atlantic loggerhead (Caretta caretta caretta), second largest of the world’s five species of sea turtle, has been a concern for more than a hundred years, or at least ever since the best cooks in Charleston and Savannah began producing pastries from the loggerhead’s leathery-shelled eggs. Thousands were collected each year along the open beaches of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida—wherever the female turtle lumbered ashore in the full moon of the spring tide to bury over one hundred ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. Time and again the female loggerhead returns from her wanderings on the high seas to deposit eggs on the same stretch of beach, perhaps even returning to the place where she herself was hatched.

Protective laws have reduced turtle-egg collecting, but the highest-priced beach property in the world—along our southern Atlantic shore—is the loggerhead’s main nesting ground. Development has destroyed innumerable rookeries, with the result that fewer and fewer female loggerheads are surviving to maturity.

Thus far the most ambitious program to help the loggerhead is a rookery rehabilitation project on Florida’s Sanibel and Captiva islands. Known as Caretta Research, the program is sponsored by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and headed by Charles R. LeBuff, Jr. Fifty years ago these small islands in the Gulf of Mexico just off Fort Meyers supported perhaps two thousand turtle nests. In 1968 only 186 were found, 73 of which were soon destroyed by predators and storms. Last May, June, and July, Caretta Research workers prowled the beaches at night, carefully gathering up thirty clutches of freshly laid eggs, which were quickly reburied within an enclosed hatchery. Common practice in similar projects is to turn the hatchlings loose once they emerge from the sand fifty to sixty days later. But Caretta Research is now raising more than two thousand infant turtles in salt-water tanks on a diet of lettuce and some two hundred pounds of ground fish a week. As soon as they are a year old and large enough to defend themselves, they will be released. Since protection of the males is not vital, and they could be let go earlier, local biology students are working on a method to differentiate the sexes. Dr. Archie Carr, famous for his work with the green turtle, calls the project “a good gamble” but is concerned that pen-raised turtles may lose their return-guidance capability. Knowledge about the sea turtles’ homing behavior is inadequate because a tag able to survive the reptile’s growth from a few grams to three hundred or more pounds has not been devised. Caretta Research is experimenting with a special notch in the shell, a new method tried in Australia.

The full success of the project will not be known for six to ten years, when the first batch of females to be released this June 17 will reach sexual maturity and return—maybe—to the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.