Thursday, August 9, 2012

A watched turtle never comes

It's turtle time on Topsail Island.
It's been a couple of months now since the giant loggerheads began making their way through the nighttime surf to deposit their eggs in deep-dug holes along the sand dune that borders the beach. This year, there have been upwards of 70 nests on our 26-mile island so far, with over 20 of them on the northern stretch where we live when we're here. It's a busy time for the members of the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol, with volunteers walking the beach every morning in search of new nests, and others anxiously awaiting the first wave of newly hatched babies.
Topsail Island is also home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, one of only two in the U.S. The all-volunteer Center cares for and rehabilitates injured loggerhead and other species of turtles, and releases them back into the sea or finds other homes for those unable to survive in the wild.
While our "here today, gone tomorrow" schedule hasn't allowed my spouse to accept a full-time route along the beach, she has been an enthusiastic substitute beachwalker and volunteer who, last season, discovered the first nest on the island.  So you can imagine her excitement when she got off the phone after a longish conversation with the charming volunteer turtle honcho who manages our portion of the shore.
"Good news," she said. "We're going to be sitting a nest!"
Now, before you fall prey to the indelible image of the missus and me donning zippered feathered suits so as to better resemble giant-sized broody hens, let me explain that the term refers to the practice of keeping an eye on turtle nests that are due to hatch in order to, in some small measure, protect the hatchlings from predators and well-meaning tourists, plus attempt to steer them right if they are attracted by artificial lighting instead of the moon-lit sea that is their natural destination.  Even with those efforts, I have heard it estimated that only one in a thousand will survive to adulthood and return--in the case of the females--to the same stretch of beach to lay eggs of their own some 30 to 35 years later when they reach full maturity, due to both natural predators and man-made hazards. We were both pretty thrilled about the opportunity to be on the scene when over a hundred infant turtles took their first steps out of the nest and towards the ocean. It was a sight she witnessed last year, an opportunity I skipped because my night vision was all but nonexistent before the cornea transplant I received in the fall.
Because that's the thing.
They only hatch at night.
It is, apparently, part of the evolutionary development of the tiny guys that they instinctively know it's much safer to exit the nest when seagulls and other opportunistic predators are off duty.  Moreover, it's thought that bright light is damaging to the new hatchlings' eyes, so nest-sitters are limited to the use of dim red lights while observing the nest and the streams of young reptiles that "boil" from them at hatching time.
The nest we were assigned to was just down the beach from our own beach access, so getting there was quick and easy. A good thing, too, because we spent seven long nights sitting in near and total darkness, waiting for something to happen. An experienced turtle tender named Jane was in charge of the nest, and assured both me and the steady stream of onlookers who stopped by to see what we were doing that things were normal, in that every nest is unique in the way it matures and hatches. But after nearly a week had passed after what should have been the end of the normal gestation period, even she started wondering if the nest had somehow hatched undetected after we had left it for the evening, with the tell-tale turtle tracks concealed by late-night rain and offshore winds.
We stayed later, just in case.
Still nothing.
And later.
Our grandsons and I traced giant sea turtles in the wet sand near the water in an effort to create some good karma, but high tides washed away our artwork without any result.
By this time, I think we were all getting a little worried.
Then nature took over.
Megan walked down one morning to see if anything had happened in the wee hours of the night before, only to discover that the heroic hatchlings had made their break for freedom in a rare daytime race to the water just 45 minutes earlier. The miraculous minutes were witnessed by a fisherman and a tourist named Jim from Ohio, who had faithfully visited the nest each night and had, apparently, arrived for an early morning look-see at just the right time.
"He was one happy camper," said a turtle patrol member who arrived on the scene soon after.
I bet.
And though we were kind of disappointed we didn't get to see the little guys off, we were glad that it had finally happened and that 110 baby turtles had made their way to the ocean that will be their home for the rest of their lives.
A few nights later, we attended a "nest analysis," where the hatched nest is dug up, and egg shells, unhatched eggs and other evidence is examined. And while the experts among us exclaimed at the extreme rarity and high risks of a daytime departure from the nest, I couldn't help but imagine a happy hoard of sunglass-wearing loggerhead babies skipping into the warm surf, thumbing their tiny noses at sunshine, seagulls and turtle mavens alike.
You know, scientists estimate that sea turtles have been around for at least 200 million years.
After all that time, chances are, they know what they're doing.

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