SAVANNAH — For six years, Dr. Terry Nolan has treated rare sea turtles that wash up on Georgia beaches injured by shark bites and fish hooks or from eating plastic bags — with no place to keep those facing a lengthy recovery.

The wildlife veterinarian’s most serious patients have required a trip of at least 150 miles to rehabilitation clinics in Florida or South Carolina.

But the road to recovery for these threatened and endangered turtles will soon get a lot shorter. Construction on Georgia’s first sea turtle hospital is slated to begin later this month on Jekyll Island.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought about it until I showed an interest,” said Nolan, veterinarian at the St. Catherines Island Wildlife Center, who began pitching the idea in 2000. “We do have sea turtles in our state and we need to be able to handle them here.”

Scheduled to open in 2007, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center will have up to 6,000 square feet of space devoted to turtle rehabilitation, research and education.

The Jekyll Island Authority, which manages the barrier island 50 miles south of Savannah, is building the facility with $2.6 million raised by its nonprofit partner, the Jekyll Island Foundation.

Georgia is the only Southeastern state without a special rehab clinic for sea turtles, though about 1,000 loggerhead sea turtles nest each year along the state’s 100-mile coast.

The closest rehabilitation centers to Georgia are located at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston and the Marine Science Center near Daytona Beach, Fla.

Loggerheads, which average 3 feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds, are classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. About 200 of the turtles wash ashore in Georgia every year, most of them dead.

But the number found alive — but sick with disease or seriously wounded by boats, fishing gear or sharks — has risen over the past decade to about 10 a year, compared with two in the mid-1990s, said Mark Dodd, sea turtle program coordinator for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“A lot of these animals, by the time they wash up on the beach ... they’re in really critical condition,” Dodd said. “To have a facility where we can get them immediate treatment, it’s going to increase their chances of survival pretty dramatically.”

Dodd said two injured turtles in the past three years have died while being transported to other states. At other times, clinics in Florida and South Carolina have said they had no room to take in turtles from Georgia.

“So we kept the animal ourselves and did the best we could in substandard conditions,” Dodd said.

The Georgia center will be housed in the remains of a 1903 electric plant that powered Jekyll Island when it remained a winter getaway for William Rockefeller and other rich industrialists.

Its veterinary clinic, which Nolan will oversee, will include surgery and X-Ray rooms for turtles, as well as custom fiberglass tanks capable of circulating fresh saltwater. Exhibits and video feeds of the recuperating turtles will be available for tour groups.

“People can see what’s happening to these animals, see them being treated,” said Cindy McDonald, director of the Jekyll Island Foundation. “It’s not a common thing to walk along the beach and see a nesting sea turtle. When most people think of turtles, they’re not thinking of 300- pound turtles.”


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