Nests of threatened and endangered sea turtles in the Pea Island Refuge, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, had begun to hatch. I was thrilled to be able to help with the release of 45 loggerhead hatchlings, born after the turtle watch had left at midnight and sometime before the morning patrol started on their rounds at daybreak. They had been stored in three large pails of sand and kept in a dark room at 28 degrees Celsius until it was time for their release. Sea turtles start on the journey of life, alone, uneducated, unprotected, the victims of chance.
These hatchlings were released on the beach near their nest site, about 30 feet from shore. Flashlights had been dulled with filters so the light would not distract them. In the darkness we were afraid to move for fear of stepping on one but night releases eliminate the threat of pelicans, vultures, night herons and gulls as well as dogs. Most of the little fellows headed for the ocean, an arduous journey for tiny feet. When a big wave came it would throw them back up on the beach where they would struggle to turn themselves around and try all over again.
One little fellow was really confused. Over and over again he veered to the right so on hands and knees I made a barricade with my right hand steering him toward the water, inch by inch. We both got caught by more than one big wave but I didn't mind. For a little while I could protect him from ghost crabs and wrong turns, but very shortly he would be in that big ocean with fish, sharks and whales, all pleased to eat him.
It took about an hour for all the little turtles to reach the water. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if there had been no volunteers. There were six of us helping Tracy Hunt, an environmentalist, on staff with the Pea Island Refuge which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Two volunteers stayed at nest # 6 watching for more hatchlings to emerge. Four of us drove to #9. As a visitor to the Outer Banks, I felt privileged to tag along.
Estimates indicate one in 2,500 hatchlings survive to maturity which takes 20- to 30 years. Female loggerheads are highly philopatric, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to return to the same stretch of coastline. Nesting begins around May 15 and continues to August 15, with hatchlings appearing 55 to 65 days later. It is estimated that loggerheads live 50 to 100 years, reaching 200 to 350 pounds.
In the surf zone, hatchlings are besieged by sharks and schools of hungry fish. Marine predators gather in the surf and wait patiently for the hatchlings . Once beyond the dense swarms near the shore, they have a better chance. Sea turtles spend their earliest, most vulnerable years floating in the Gulf stream in giant beds of sargasso weeds where they eat and grow, relatively safe from predators. Once dinner-plate size they travel individually but congregate at feeding locations off the nesting beaches. The females may mate with several males prior to nesting season and are able to store the sperm for several months.
In expectation of emerging hatchlings, we put up green corrugated lawn edging making a two-foot wide path which extended from the nest to the ocean. We patted it smooth, devoid of any obstacles that could make the walk more difficult for those tiny feet. Each stone was removed and each crevice filled in.
The hours passed slowly as we sat beside the nest watching the white caps roll in. The company was great and the tranquility of the night was captivating, in fact, spiritual. The sky was black, not a star to be seen. At first the rain fell gently but we were fine with rain jackets and umbrellas. The wind gradually picked up and by 11:00 it was hurling rain at us. There was no way to stay dry. Just before midnight Tracy decided to pack it in. We rolled up our fencing, gathered our sodden blankets and equipment, sloshed back to the highway through sand and bush, anxious to reach the car. Our shoes squished with each step.
Of the 14 nests along the beach, one was destroyed by a tidal pool, a second lay empty with about 150 eggs hatched, 12 nests remained, 11 were loggerheads and one was green sea turtle. Late August will see the rest of the eggs hatch.
During the night, If undisturbed, a female comes on shore, laboriously making her way on land to locate a suitable spot well above the high tide line. Using rear flippers she digs an egg chamber 8 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep After resting briefly she fills the hole with a clutch of 100 or more soft eggs about the size of ping-pong balls, gently covers them and then spreads sand over a wide area with her front flippers to obscure the exact location of the chamber. She never sees the nest again.
The mother may nest four to seven times a season and then not again for two or three years. Crawl tracks are always made by a female sea turtle; males never leave the water. Incubation requires between 26-32 degrees Celsius and sex is temperature dependent. It is male biased in the cool range with a 1:1 ratio at 30 degrees for loggerheads. The peak time of emergence is between 21:00 - 02:00 hours.
As soon as a volunteer sees a trail left on the beach, the nest is protected by a wire basket because raccoons, skunks, coyotes and dogs love the eggs. Blue markers identify the spot and the area is marked 'out of bounds' with ropes.
This refuge has had as many as 42 nests in the past but erosion of the beach, commercial fishing nets, development and beach driving are seriously reducing the habitat. Deadly for leatherback turtles are plastic bags discarded in the water which are mistaken for jelly fish. Loggerheads eat crabs, clams, mussels and shrimp. On other beaches with less protection, shoreline development, beach-front construction, coastal armoring, artificial lights and pollution are serious threats.
I was impressed by the dedication of the volunteers, members of the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.). Some give up four nights a week to protect the nests from 7:00 till midnight and others handle the morning patrol which starts at daybreak. It is a very rewarding experience but I was shattered to learn that in mainland China, tons of turtles, many shipped from the States, are consumed daily because the Chinese believe that eating turtles is the secret to long life and wisdom. In some Latin American cultures men covet sea turtle eggs as an aphrodisiac. All sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act but enforcement is lax and poaching rampant. Turtle meat and eggs are a black-market delicacy and tortoiseshell jewelry and souvenirs bring good dollars. There are are no easy answers.
Leatherback turtles are endangered. In 1980 the total world population of nesting females was 115,000. In 1995 that number had dropped to 34,500 and all counts indicate the number has decreased alarmingly since then. This species has lived more than 65 million years, surviving the fall of the dinosaurs and the rise of humanity. What a loss to mankind if the only surviving sea turtles are in aquariums.