Right now, something completely amazing is happening on a barrier island in North Carolina. Sea turtles, one of the Earth's most ancient creatures, are coming ashore at night to dig nests and lay their eggs. They've been doing the same thing, over and over and over again, for more than 100 million years. And it's still utterly amazing.
I recently spent a morning on Topsail Island, NC, with my sister-in-law Bobbie and her husband Bob, doing what they do every Monday morning between May 1 and the end of August. We walked up and down a stretch of this barrier island's 26-mile long beach looking for tracks that would indicate that a turtle had crawled up from the ocean's shore to lay eggs.
Bob and Bobbie are part of an impressive volunteer force that's been mobilized by the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Hospital to help save these creatures. That means helping to protect the laid eggs from predators and even guiding hatchlings back to the sea.
We got to the beach about 6:20 a.m. with no guarantee that we'd find any tracks. When they're there, you can't miss them. The turtles that nest on Topsail are primarily loggerheads and occasional greens, and they are BIG – some almost four feet across! When they drag their heavy shells across the sand, their flippers leave a string of distinctive gouges behind. If any turtles had nested the night before, we'd see the evidence.
Bob grabbed a trash bag to collect random plastic bottles, paper cups, and other debris that might have been left on the beach over night or washed in on the tide. He also had a set of sticks and bright orange caution tape that would be used to mark off a nest if we found one.
We headed up the beach at a brisk clip. One reason why volunteers patrol is because a nest full of turtle eggs is almost irresistible to foxes, raccoons, and other predators. In other parts of the world, people eat turtle eggs, too. That's not a problem on Topsail, but still, we didn't want anything or anyone digging up the nest, whether for food, fun, or just to see what they might find. Plus, if the nest has been laid too close to the high water mark, or if it's too shallow, tides could wash away the sand, exposing the eggs to the elements and pretty much ensuring their demise. Volunteers carefully relocate nests if they have to, but time is of the essence, as the eggs can only be safely moved within a few hours after they've been laid.
Fortunately, this morning, time was on our side. No more than 15 minutes went by before we came across a long set of tracks leading up from the shore to the base of a sand dune where it looked like a nest had been laid. (That's me standing next to the tracks and nest.)
Bobbie used her cell phone to call for back-up. Before long, Donna, another volunteer, showed up carrying a long stick, a deep orange pail, a notebook, and other equipment. Though a turtle may crawl out of the ocean and even dig a nest, there's no guarantee she will actually lay eggs. Donna used the stick to gently probe down into what appeared to be the nest to see what she could find.
Suddenly, Donna's face broke into a big smile. "We've got eggs," she announced. "Yay!" everyone cheered. Donna recorded some data – the location of the nest, along with the time and date. Then she determined that the nest was too close to the high water mark and would need to be moved.
She got down on her knees next to where she thought the eggs were and began to dig with her hands. She dug and dug and dug until finally, she felt the first egg. Then she set up a little assembly line. She put a layer of wet sand on the bottom of the orange bucket. My sister-in-law Bobbie squatted down next to the bucket. Donna lifted the first egg directly up and out of the nest and placed it on the sand. Bobbie picked up the egg and placed it as carefully as possible in the bucket. They both tried to avoid jostling the egg so as not to damage the embryo inside.
For what seemed like a long time, Donna (in the hole) lifted eggs up and out of the nest, and Bobbie lifted them up, then set them back down into the bucket. Meanwhile, I was counting every egg as it came out.
When we got to 50 eggs, I was impressed. When we reached a hundred, everyone was excited. By the time we got to the last one, there were 160 in all – 40 more than the usual 120! We had a motherlode of turtle eggs in the bucket, a nest almost 3 feet deep, and a big crowd of kids and their parents standing around us in total awe of what they were seeing.
Without wasting any time, Donna scanned the dune area and opted to relocate the eggs about five feet higher up. Then we essentially reversed the process. First, Donna dug out the new nest. Then she added some sand from the old nest in case the mother turtle had left secretions behind that her babies needed. Bobbie carefully carried the orange bucket full of eggs to the new nest and began placing them one at a time on the sand. Donna picked them up from the sand and put them back in the nest, hoping to place them in the same order in which she took them out. She put one aside, which she would later send to a lab for DNA testing as a way to track where the mothers lay eggs during the season.
When all the eggs were safely deposited in the nest, we covered it back up with sand. Then Bob helped Donna lay a protective wire mesh maybe five feet by five feet on top of the nest, and hammered in an anchoring stick at each corner. They wound the caution tape around each stick to create an effective visual warning for anyone passing by. Donna covered the mesh with additional sand and posted a warning sign instructing everyone who passed by to leave the nest alone.
"What's next?" I asked, feeling elated at having done my tiny little part to help sea turtles survive.
"We wait 55 days," said Bobbie. "Then we start watching the nest at night, waiting for the eggs to boil," which is what it's called when the eggs hatch. By then, volunteers will have banked a path from the nest to the ocean so that the newborn turtles have no choice but to head directly back to sea. If it's a dark night, someone may stand in the surf waving a flashlight to simulate moonlight and give the turtles something else to aim for as they try to make it to the nourishing underwater grasses where they'll feast until they're big enough to head into open ocean.
"Why are you saving sea turtles?" asked one of the kids who was watching Bobbie and Donna move the nest. Someone explained how difficult it is for sea turtles to make it from the egg stage all the way to a thriving adult. It's estimated that only 1 in 1,000 babies survive the first year, and as few as 1 in 5,000 – 10,000 survive to adulthood. Even if they do make it from their nest to the ocean, lots of hungry animals will be waiting there to slurp them up and gobble them down.
Adult turtles are threatened, too, maybe more from people than from the natural elements. Thousands of turtles are captured in fishing nets every year. Just as many mistake plastic bags that have gotten loose in the water for the jellyfish they like to eat — and choke. Climate change may be taking its toll, too; warming oceans may be raising the temperatures at which turtles ideally live and reproduce.
All that aside, here's another truly amazing fact: in about 25 years, the turtles that do grow up will come back, not just to any old beach along the Atlantic coast, but to this stretch of Topsail Island. No matter how far away they swim, they'll ride the currents back to Topsail, where they'll lay their own nests, and perhaps enthrall another group of volunteers who will, once again, help them stay safe until they can find their way back to the sea.
You Can Help!
We did our part last week by helping to protect at least this one nest. If you want to help, too, please make a donation today to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.