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The Buried Treasure of Sea Turtles

The beach at the north end of Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia is dark, with only stars lighting the night. Yet the summer sea is not dark. In the shallows, tiny green stars cling to my ankles, leaving a shining luminescent trail where I have walked.

Named after the morning star Phosphor, this phosphorescence is caused by tiny marine organisms. But I have not come down to the beach to see this gold, like fireflies in the water, but to glimpse another treasure.

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A low, massive shape emerges from the sea. A female loggerhead turtle rides the last wave into shore, her shell glowing. She lumbers up the beach, all grace left behind in the sea. Just beyond the shallows, a pair of dolphins glide through the waters, their trunks glistening.

The soft sands press against the turtle as she makes her cumbersome way to the high-tide mark to begin building her nest. In the starlight, she seems to be weeping: A huge tear shines at the corner of her eye.

She buries her eggs on the same shores where centuries earlier, pirates buried treasure. Blackbeard once sailed the waters off Tybee Island, a few miles from Savannah. But there are different kinds of treasure now. In a world where animals, plants, and some mammals are becoming extinct, sea turtles are treasures, as are their eggs.

For centuries, sea turtles shared the beaches of nearby Ossabaw, Sapelo, and St. Catherines islands with the Creek Indians, for whom these islands were sacred.

Seven species of sea turtle used to nest regularly on Georgia's barrier islands, including Blackbeard's Island, Tybee, and Wassaw. Caretta, caretta, which sounds like the beginning of a rock song, is the proper name for the loggerhead turtle, now the only sea turtle to regularly nest on these beaches.

The adult female loggerhead weighs close to 400 pounds, and her shell is about three feet long. Her ``tear,'' which she sheds when coming ashore to lay her eggs, is produced by salt glands.

Truly a marine animal, she comes out of the sea only to nest and lay her eggs. This she does every two or three years. She may nest five times in a season (from May through August).

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When she has finished laying her eggs, she will cover the nest with sand and leave it unattended. Young turtles get no nurturing from their parents. Male loggerheads never leave the sea once they enter it as hatchlings. And for every 10,000 eggs laid, only one female loggerhead sea turtle makes it to adulthood and lays more eggs.

Digging with her flippers, she throws sand behind her. When the nest suits her, she begins to lay her leathery eggs, about 120 a nest, each about the size of golf balls.

There are predators even in the woods and along all the beaches of the protected islands. Raccoons, ghost crabs, humans, and wild pigs are all a danger to the unborn turtles, while the hatchlings are also prey to gulls and fish.

But the greatest threat to the eggs is from humans. Modern-day pirates roam these islands, stealing turtle eggs for profit. Recently, poachers stole nearly 3,000 eggs from 19 loggerhead sea turtle nests in Georgia and South Carolina.

The islands are dark and mysterious, and it is easy for these pirates to slip into the quiet lagoons and beaches to steal the eggs to sell on the black market.

It takes about two months for loggerhead eggs to develop into hatchlings. The hatching season is from late July to late September. In cool weather, the incubation period is longer; in hot weather, it is shorter.

The babies hatch out a couple of days before leaving their nests. In the nest, the hatchlings move constantly, and because of this, their bodies nudge closer and closer to the surface of the nest where they can feel the outside temperature. When the temperature drops in the evening, the turtles closest to the surface become active, starting a chain reaction of movement that soon propels the hatchlings up and out of the nest.

A hundred baby sea turtles can leave the nest in less than three minutes, giving them time to sight the ocean and begin their journey down the beach before predators spot them.

There is a mystery connected to these animals. There is a hidden treasure-trove where the babies go to grow. But where is this nursery in the sea to which the hatchlings disappear?

From the moment the tiny hatchlings leave the nest, they are on their own. They swim constantly for several days. This long swim probably takes them out to the currents that take them to their nursery grounds. But where these nurseries are, no one knows.

One theory is that the hatchlings spend their first few years in mats of seaweed. No one is sure how they feed. Adult loggerheads feed on sponges, mollusks, crustaceans, sea urchins, and marine plants.

The next time these young loggerheads are seen, they will be three to five years old and will be about two feet long.

In the past, there were reports of loggerheads weighing 1,000 pounds, but these giants are gone now. Most weigh between 300 and 500 pounds. The loggerheads' habitat is coastal bays, lagoons, estuaries, and the open seas of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

There are many turtle watches throughout the islands to protect these treasures. In Savannah, the power company places ads in the local paper, requesting people who live on the islands to turn off their lights in beachfront areas during the turtles' nesting and hatching seasons.

The nesting female finds her way back to the sea by sighting the line of the horizon, and other lights would distract her and take her off course. Likewise, bright lights lure the newborn turtles away from the moonlight on the ocean.

After she lays her eggs, the unwieldy female turtle makes her lonely way back down the beach. But once she enters the sea, she moves effortlessly, smoothly.

As the waves close over her, one flipper emerges from the water. It has all the grace of the pale pectoral fin of a humpback whale. She is back where she belongs, back in her element. A treasure returned to the sea. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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