Thursday, July 11, 2013

Still time for turtles

There's a lot we've missed about the Carolina barrier island where we spend a good part of our lives nowadays. While we truly enjoyed our time at home in Illinois, we also found ourselves pining for sunny beach days, offshore dolphin pods, warm water, fast-rolling waves, and miles and miles of shells and other pretty, interesting shoreline flotsam. We have, of course, also missed the young grandsons that are our real reason for being here, along with the days and nights we spend together sharing precious bits of their little lives.
Oh yeah, and we've missed one other thing, too.
The turtles.
The narrow, sandy beaches that extend from the Outer Banks and Cape Lookout to Emerald Isle and Topsail, and down through Wilmington and the Sea Islands of South Carolina are prime nesting areas for the sea turtles that scientists estimate have been around for at least 200 million years.  Most common in our corner of the world are the huge Loggerheads, who often measure over 36 inches and 300 pounds, with certain super-sized individuals recording weights up to half a ton. Other sea turtles that are sometimes seen in these waters include Green and Kemp's Ridley species. Topsail Island is even 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 and sick sea turtles, and releases them back into the sea or finds other homes for those unable to survive in the wild.
My turtle-loving spouse has been an avid volunteer in the three seasons we've spent here. As a member of the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol, she has risen early in the morning to walk the beach in search of newly laid turtle nests, and stayed up late "sitting" turtle nests that are due to hatch, in order to assist the babies in their first, perilous steps into a big, danger-filled world.  She has even convinced me to join her and get up early or stay up late once in awhile, which is a true testament to both her dedication to the cause and her advanced powers of persuasion.  She was afraid she had missed most of the nesting activity during our May-through-June stay in Illinois, as that's when many of the giant reptiles make their way to the beaches where they were hatched decades ago to dig deep nests in the sand and deposit a hundred or more eggs. But like the midwest, the southeast coast experienced a cool, wet spring this year that sort of slowed things down. In Illinois, that meant corn and bean crops that are weeks behind their usual growth patterns.
Out here, it meant there was still plenty of time for turtles.
At first, our days on the island were taken up by the Independence Day holiday and the kind of happy reunion that always occurs when we've been away from family members for a period of months. It seemed that both grandsons had grown at least a foot or more since early May. There were stories to be told and memories to make. The weather was sunny and warm, so we rarely left the beach or the boys at all for those first few days.
But finally, the boys went home for a night or two and she made her plan.
"I'm walking in the morning," she said.
Our "here today, gone tomorrow" lifestyle makes it hard for her to take on a permanent post as a beach walker with a regular daily route to cover. So, instead, she subs for other volunteers, or just goes out and along the beach in the early morning to see what there is to see.
By the time I got up and staggered downstairs for my first cup of coffee, she was long gone. I knew where she had gone, and after awhile, I headed down to the shore with a book and a beach chair and waited for her to return.
And waited.
And waited.
Years of togetherness have taught me that she and I have different ways of looking at the passing of time, so I wasn't much worried when she didn't return for an hour. Or two. In fact, it was over three hours later before I spied her walking along the shoreline toward me, looking as happy, tired and dirty as a little girl who had just spent a day playing in a sandbox.
And, in fact, that was just what she had been doing.
When turtle eggs are laid in a nest that is apt to be unsafe or disturbed by human or natural elements, volunteers dig it up and move the eggs to a safer spot. To do so, someone has to reach down, down into a deep, narrow hole and retrieve those eggs. And count them, too.
Guess who?
"I got to be the egg-counter," she cried.
Pure joy.
"There were 144!"
Gestation of Loggerhead turtle eggs is about 60 days or so, depending on the temperature of the sand they're buried in. So that means sometime around the first part of September, watchers will begin to gather around that nest at twilight, hoping to do their part in protecting the hatchlings from predators and man-made obstacles alike.
I'm pretty sure I know one turtle watcher who will be there. One dedicated animal lover who will be sure to bring her grandkids--and even her husband--to witness the marvelous miracle of life.
You see, she knows those babies. And, for sure, she wants to see them again as they make their way to the sea that will be their home for the rest of their lives.
All 144 of them.

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