Thursday, August 22, 2013

Another turtle tale

Regular readers of this column may have noticed an unexpected emphasis on youngsters besides the grandsons who were the driving force behind our part-time relocation to the sunny beaches of North Carolina.
I'm talking about turtles.
I'm talking about the behemoth loggerheads who, after years at sea, return to the beaches where they were born to dig nests and lay a hundred eggs or more. And, of course, I'm talking about the improbably tiny baby hatchlings who, some sixty or so days later, pour from those nests and make their wobbling way to the ocean that will become their home for the rest of their lives..
Yes, I'm talking--one last time--about turtle season on Topsail Island, an ongoing, spring-to-fall event that has become so important to my spouse that I swear I heard an audible "click" as I moved down to the number three (I hope) position in her heart and mind beneath both the grandkids and the sea-going reptiles.
I don't think I've been exactly jealous of her fascination with sea turtles and their progeny.  After all, while we share a lot of time and interests, we've both always been able to do our own things, as well.  Her things often involve interesting, active pursuits that include learning and interaction, while mine generally lean towards my own self-styled Zen-like attraction to short walks, long naps and food products that feature chocolate chips. In truth, her dedication to the turtle-trail seemed fair enough to me, but I confess that I wondered just what the real attraction was. Not the early morning walks that occur every day in search of new nests, as there are no coffee pots, newspapers or fresh-baked muffins on the beach, thus eliminating my ability to make the scene most days. Nor have I been overwhelmed with a desire to sit in the dark while staring at a piece of sand that might or might not yield a bevy of newborn turtle-babies.
Moreover, I confess that since a majority of the turtle walkers and watchers on this island seem to be of the female persuasion, I tend to get a mite restless sitting around as they chit-chat about lazy husbands, quantum physics and the other topics that trip their collective triggers.
So mainly, she goes and I stay.
But it all changed when we both agreed to "sit a nest" that was due to hatch with a turtle-watching pal named Jane, who tends to believe that it's not a bad idea to have a guy on hand while on the beach late at night.  I, of course, am flattered that someone would think I could provide adequate defense from predators like the foxes, bobcats and tipsy surf fishermen who sometimes roam the nighttime shore, so I have been happy to join her and my ever-present spouse when it's time to sit around and wait for something exciting to happen. The  actual turtle hatching process is a big part of what attracts so many dedicated volunteers to programs like the Topsail Island project.  There's a lot of walking and waiting involved, which is sometimes joyfully rewarded by the sight of what looks like a gazillion little turtles boiling out of the sand before resolutely marching towards the ocean.
It was an event I had never experienced, mainly due to a disinclination to get off my duff and do it. Waiting for Jane's nest was entirely unrewarding for the first week, with the dark quiet nights alternating with a couple of really wet, soggy ones, including one that found me trying to cuddle and comfort a miserable five-year-old who insisted he was neither wet nor cold until deciding that he was most definitely both. The weather turned a little wild later that night, with high winds and driving rain. The next morning, beach walkers spied a hole in the nest, which is often a sign that the turtles have hatched and headed for the water. The tell-tale tracks that usually exist would have been washed away by the rain, so there was no way to tell for sure. Jane, Megan and I were sorry we missed it, but glad the waiting was over. All that was left was the nest analysis, when the hatched nest is dug up, and egg shells, unhatched eggs and other evidence is examined to see how many baby turtles made it out of the nest and across the sand to their new lives in the sea. There was another nest that had to be checked that night, so it was nearly dark when we started to dig out Jane's nest. Donna, the turtle-lady in charge of the excavation, dug carefully, as none of us were really sure if the nest had fully hatched. Protocol states that if it wasn't, any viable, unhatched eggs or partially hatched babies should quickly be re-covered with sand and nature allowed to take its course.
Suddenly, she found something.
It was a baby turtle.
She turned to me. I knew what she was wondering.
Should we put the hatchling back in the nest? Should we cover up this wiggling, vibrant bit of life with wet, cold sand and walk away?
She hesitated. And suddenly, nature took charge.
Suddenly, the nest was filled with baby turtles, all moving up and out and onto the sand.
The march of the turtles had begun.
Our presence at the nest had attracted a large group of tourists who were quickly pressed into service. They lined the "ramp," the long, man-made path used to guide the hatchlings to the surf, while one visitor smoothed it out for the struggling babies. Another ran to the houses on the dune overlooking the nest and asked the residents to turn off their lights so that the tiny newborns would not be attracted to them and fail to reach the water.  Everyone knelt, knowing that a misstep in the dark would crush the life out of a newborn hatchling.
We watched. We waited. We gave the little bits of help that we are allowed to give.
When it was over, 138 turtles made it to the water in a cooperative effort between our two species.
Donna, the head turtle-lady called it "imperfect order out of chaos."
Others called it wonderful.
But the best comment came from an eight-year-old boy who was lucky enough to see it all.
"This was the best day of my life."
And me?
I know how he feels.

You can see video of this crazy turtle hatch at
I'm the guy with the red headlamp to the right of the nest.

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