A Brief History

Wassaw Island, 1970 (Photo: NPS)

Stimulated by the noticeable decline in sea turtle populations in the Northwest Atlantic and around the world, a trilateral collaboration between the Savannah Science Museum (Jerry Williamson), Wassaw Island Trust (Charlie Milmine, also with museum), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service founded the Caretta Research Project (CRP) in 1972. Starting in 1973, CRP began monitoring the loggerhead sea turtle population nesting on Wassaw Island by marking individuals, a strategy known to yield demographic information critical for population recovery and management. Shortly thereafter, rigorous nest protection procedures were implemented to ensure safe incubation of clutches deposited on Wassaw in an effort to maximize hatchling production and bolster the population into future.

Education and public participation have been at the heart of CRP from its origin. Members of the Savannah Science Museum Herpetology Club conducted the first surveys, then CRP established one of the nation’s first “eco-vacations” available to the public. For over 40 years, participants have traveled to Wassaw to help to patrol the beach in search of nesting turtles and protect their vulnerable nests once found. In turn, CRP has strived to foster unique experiences with nature and empower participants with knowledge and experiences that allow them to become ambassadors for the plight of the world’s sea turtles.

As we approach our 50th Anniversary, CRP proudly continues the work started by our founders. Their proactive action together with unwavering dedication from subsequent staff, participants and supporters have allowed the CRP to become one of the longest continuously running sea turtle research and protection organizations in the United States.

Why Sea Turtles?

Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)

Sea turtles are the focus of CRP conservation efforts because
these ancient creatures are important indicators of the health of our oceans.
Sea turtles play unique and critical ecological roles in sustaining the health
of marine ecosystems. If we succeed in protecting sea turtles into the future, then we will have committed to preserving life on earth and maintaining the health and sustainability of our planet. Although CRP is primarily focused on sea turtles,
our goals of protecting sea turtles and their habitats ultimately protects the
complex, interconnected world on which human societies depend.

Sea turtles are also part of our natural heritage. Much like
historical landmarks and pristine open spaces should be preserved, so too
should wildlife. As loveable and imperiled giants, sea turtles are ambassadors
for the plight of global biodiversity and the critical importance of
maintaining our connection to the natural world. Extinction is forever and the
loss of species diversity at the hands of human interference is ethically,
economically and culturally tragic. Conserving sea turtles means preserving our
connection to nature, which will elevate the cultural and spiritual well-being
of future generations.

Why Wassaw Island?

Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge

Since its founding, CRP has focused conservation efforts on
loggerhead sea turtles on Wassaw Island. Because access to Wassaw has been
limited historically, the island has remained pristine and is now protected as
a National Wildlife Refuge. As coastal development threatens other Georgia
islands, Wassaw continues to receive one of the highest densities of loggerhead
nests in the state and, with continued protection, it will remain a nesting
stronghold for the Northern US loggerhead subpopulation into the future.

Wassaw’s turtles are a part of the largest loggerhead
population in the Western Hemisphere. This globally important population
continues to respond positively to conservation efforts after a
century of overexploitation. CRP has concentrated its mission to ensure the
long-term stability of this important population and the ecological roles that
it plays, as well as the critical habitats upon which it depends.