It’s a thousand to one chance that this hatchling Loggerhead turtle will survive long enough to lay her eggs on this beach 30 years from now.
The newly minted turtle that now mechanically careens down the beach slope was preceded years and years ago by its own mother, who made the same perilous trek down the same stretch of beach.
Ghost crabs skitter along the sand, ready to cripple a hatchling by snipping a flipper tendon. Laughing gulls are drawn by the spectacle of a hundred humans gathered together on a beach, a sure sign of nearby food. Pelicans skim the surface of the water.
Every finned or feathered creature sees a hatchling sea turtle as an easy meal, and this is just day one.
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The two-inch long hatchling must navigate open ocean to reach the nominal protection of floating mats of Sargassum, where it might survive long enough to be too large to be taken by pelagic birds and some of its ocean predators. Along the way, some turtles will drown in gill nets, others will perish by propeller strikes, or waste away in oil sludge, while many will be eaten by sharks, or starve because their intestines are obstructed by a plastic bag or other manmade debris.
The shallow waters on our Carolina coast can chill quickly when a cold front arrives. Sea turtles, like any reptile, are ectotherms. The sudden plummeting of ocean temperatures can leave the turtle in a stupor, unable to swim, or dive beneath the surface.
Since 1978, the Loggerhead turtle has been protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act. North Carolinians have taken to these reptiles with unusual fervor.
Beach residents have embraced the Loggerhead like a lost child. Our beach towns have conservancies that work relentlessly to protect the turtles. By foot and ATV, volunteers locate nesting females turtles. Once a nest is located, it’s surrounded with a fence that reaches well beneath the dune. It has a deep surrounding lip that further protects the nest from egg-foraging raccoons or foxes.
As the time draws near for a hatch, the nest is then kept under observation day and night. Volunteers sit beside the nest and watch for the telltale depression in the sand that signals an imminent eruption. By now the runway has been raked smooth, awaiting the nighttime boil. Plastic barriers create a turtle roadway directly to the sea.
It all happens in a matter of minutes.
You might see a single dark form emerge from the sand. It rests and remains still, then the sand boils, and suddenly a black mass erupts in what is called the “frenzy.” The hatchlings erupt together and the mass churns towards the water in a rapid, robotic way, like wind-up toys. All lights are turned off except perhaps a red-screened lantern held by the water to encourage the turtles to seek the ocean and not the dune. Ghost crabs are shooed away by volunteers, but no one carries any turtle to the water. The hatchlings may never imprint with their mother, but they must imprint to this stretch of beach. They must make this run to the sea on their own.
I have no photos of this event. It occurs in the dark of night. My eyes can easily adjust to the darkness, but my camera is helpless. Fortunately both the hatchlings and the spectators get a second chance. Seventy-two hours after the initial boil, I find myself on the same Bald Head beach awaiting an excavation. Sometimes, not all the hatchlings make it out of the nest. There are stragglers. A few of them emerge unaided in the nights following the initial eruption, but after three days, the Bald Head Island Conservancy gives nature a hand. Wildlife officers, biologists, and Conservancy interns rope off the perimeter, and carefully excavate the site. There are opened shells, unhatched eggs, and often a number of hatchlings in the funnel-shaped nest.
It’s 7 p.m. and everyone has arrived to witness the event. One evening, a trove of over 30 nestlings ran the gauntlet, but on this evening, it was one lone survivor that made the journey. It was a long haul. The tide was out, and the hatchling had a vast expanse to cover. Entire families urged the little turtle on to the sea.
At one point, a Laughing gull swooped in, and the mother of the family who had adopted the nest, flew down the beach yelling, irate, fist raised in the air. The lone turtle had a formidable escort. The gathered crowd cheered as the gull altered its course.
The hatchling paused ever so briefly as it looked out to the sea. A moment later, a wave of foam carried the hatchling away on its journey.
If the turtle was male, he will never touch land again. If the nestling was female, she will not return for 17 to 35 years. The precise mechanism is unknown, but all sea turtles navigate using the Earth’s magnetic fields. This stretch of beach on Bald Head Island has its own unique magnetic signature, and even as this hatchling races toward the protection of the Gulf stream, it carries with it, indelibly imprinted, the ability to find home.
Odds are a thousand to one against the turtle, but I walked away from the beach feeling hopeful, almost buoyant. A single turtle had drawn all these people together. It was a gathering of souls both fierce and fragile, much like the Loggerhead.
Special thanks to the Bald Head Island Conservancy for all their efforts to protect our natural environment, and promote a positive community climate towards wildlife conservation.
Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Common Name: Loggerhead – named for its exceptionally large head.
Scientific Name: Caretta caretta
Weight: Adult weigh between 155 and 375 pounds.
Diet: Primarily carnivorous. They eat horseshoe crabs, clams, mussels, and other invertebrates. Their powerful jaw muscles help them to easily crush the shellfish.
Nesting: Nest at intervals of 2 to 4 years. They lay 3 to 6 nests per season, approximately 12 to 14 days apart. Lays average of between 100 to 126 eggs in each nest. Eggs incubate for about 60 days.
Threats to Survival: The greatest threat is loss of nesting habitat due to coastal development, predation of nests, and human disturbances (such as coastal lighting and housing developments) that cause disorientations during the emergence of hatchlings. Other major threats include incidental capture in longline fishing, shrimp trawling and pollution.
Population Estimate: Between 40,000 and 50,000 nesting females.
Source: Sea Turtle Conservancy