Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sea Turtles play a large role in Southern History

The huge oil spill off the coast of Louisiana could impact the entire Gulf Coast of the United States by the time its done, doing extensive environmental and economic damage. Among the creatures already being impacted are the huge sea turtles that have lived along the coast of the South for thousands of years.

Some of these unique reptiles grow to be more than 6 feet long and they have long played a role in Southern history. Ancient Indians, for example, not only dined from time to time on the meat of the giant turtles, but also used them as inspiration for prehistoric art. This seems to indicate that sea turtles were of both dietary and ceremonial significance to early Native Americans all along the Southern coast.

Early European and African settlers weren't particularly interested in the ceremonial aspects of the sea turtles, but they did consider them a tasty treat from time to time. Diaries, letters and other accounts of life in the South during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries routinely mention turtle soup and even eating the eggs of the sea turtles.

Somehow, though, despite their popularity on the table, the sea turtles survived. In Georgia, for example, five different species still lay their eggs and swim in the waters around the coastal islands. All are now protected by both state and federal law. Their numbers diminished rapidly over the course of the 20th century, due to loss of habitat, increased pollution and accidental collisions with boats and fishing nets. They are today carefully watched all along the Southern coast.

If the oil spill continues to spread as some fear, the impact to the marshes and beaches of the Gulf Coast could be severe. Time will tell. Regardless of what happens, one of the best places to learn about and see the huge turtles is actually on the Atlantic Coast at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. The facility operates a very nice interpretive center that features interactive exhibits to help visitors learn more about the lives of these threatened creatures.

The center also serves as a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation facility that helps sick or injured sea turtles until they can be returned to the wild. Visitors are allowed to visit the large pools and see the turtles in their various stages of recover. To learn more, please visit

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