Share the magic of a hatching sea turtle nest.
| At work last night, I was fortunate to witness a sea turtle nest hatch. This year, we've had the least number of sea turtle nests ever, so the experience has become even more rare. It may be buggy, wet, muggy and at times, even a bit chilly, but seeing the little turtles exploding with energy and life makes you forget all of that as you're lost in the magic of the moment. I wish I could share the event with more people -- everyone falls in love with sea turtles when they see them! Then, like me, they see the value in protecting the sea, the beach, the rivers and streams. Sea turtles are charismatic megafauna that can teach us to first love, then protect, and in time, understand, the ever-changing world around us.
I sit alone on the beach, bowing my head towards the ground, as the cool damp breeze blows through me. I try to focus, listening to the night. Sea oats rub against each other as their slender young blades carve wind-driven circles in the sand. The relentless crash, splash, swoosh of waves washing ashore soothes my jangled nerves. Rain drops splatter on my face, keeping me from sleeping as I strain to hear the one noise I am searching for - the shushing, scratching sound of tiny flippers deep in the sand.
The sound rises like the rush of an underground stream, thirty seconds worth of frenzied activity as dozens of hatchling sea turtles try to swim their way out of the nest. Tired, the hatchlings pause as a group, and the busy silence of night continues. A gull cries overhead, searching for his next meal. The incessant buzz of mozzies drives me to distraction. I feel a twinge of guilt each time I swat one that's landed on my exposed arms and legs. A distinct scuttle of feet betrays the presence of a ghost crab, stealing his way towards the intermittent noise of the nest in an attempt to capture a hatchling for himself. This, at least, I can prevent - the ghost crab will not snack on sea turtle tonight.
After chasing the crab, I return to listen to the nest, staring up at the cloudy sky, wishing the rain away. A sliver of moon peeks out from a break in the clouds, bathing the beach in a blue white glow. This is the light the hatchlings will seek when they finally emerge, though it may not happen tonight. It can take several days to escape their sandy nursery as they swim towards the air, the beach and the sea. Swimming is the only thing they know; there is no parent to teach them otherwise. They will swim in their dry sea, pushing grains of sand out of the way, allowing them to settle beneath them. As they struggle underground, the displaced sand slowly raises the floor of their nest until the first hatchling's head nears the surface.
Just before 2 AM, a small hollow forms, as if a child has reached in and grabbed a handful of sand. At first, I'm not sure it's really the nest caving in - it could be the rain creating a pit in the porous ground, or my eyes, poorly adjusted to the dark night, playing tricks on me. I walk away for a minute, clear my head, and walk back. Small, irregular, dark patches appear within the hollow - I know that's a hatchling! The scout, the first to raise his head to the night air, stops for several minutes. Is he listening for predators? Smelling the salty tang of the sea? Checking for sunlight? It's hard to know. Whether he's resting or searching, he soon resumes his effort to free himself from the sandy playpen and wriggles onto the beach. His brothers and sisters boil out of the nest after him, shaking the damp sand off their backs in a flurry of flippers as they rush towards... whoops, not the sea, but the hotels on the beach.
This is why I'm here. Sea turtle hatchlings sometimes crawl towards bright lights on the beach, mistaking them for a more natural horizon. If the moon were not hidden behind a cloud, perhaps they would make a mad dash towards the sea, illuminated with moon and star shine, instead of the Hilton. There's no time to think about that though as I scramble to gather 75 silver dollar sized sea turtles before they escape in a dozen different directions on this dark night.
With a cooler full of babies, I head towards the sea, talking to them all the way. If they were not so disoriented by the lights, I would allow them to crawl the distance themselves, but I have to ensure as many as possible make it safely to the sea. I tell them this, and I tell them what to watch out for. Swim away from sharks and big fish, like tuna and marlin. Take a quick breath and dive deep when you hear a sea gull. Watch out for boats and men - they don't mean to hurt you, but sometimes, the propellers on their boats will cut you, and their fish hooks will snag you. I tell them to swim fast and far, out to the currents that will carry them to the Gulf Stream. They can hang out on the edges, finding good feeding and good cover in rafts of sargassum. There, they can grow larger than most of their predators. They can learn to swim well. In a few years, they can come back to feeding grounds close to shore; in twenty or thirty years, the females among them can come back to nest. There's a lot to try to teach a sea turtle hatchling. I know they don't understand a thing I say, but I feel compelled to say it anyway.
When I reach the water's edge, it's time to say goodbye. I lift hatchlings from the cooler, checking for signs of illness and injury, and feel the powerful pull of leathery flippers against my fingers. Like little wind-up toys, the turtles keep swimming frantically, even in the palm of my hand. The obvious strength in their tiny limbs will propel the hatchlings through the waves, into the reaches of the deep blue sea beyond. Their survival instinct seems immense.
As I place each one on the sand, gently redirecting the confused ones to face the sea, I say a blessing over them. Centuries ago, Columbus wrote in his journals that it appeared as if you could walk across this sea on the backs of sea turtles. Now there are so few that they are in danger of extinction. I wonder what the sea looked like then. I wonder how the turtles have survived so much change. I wish I knew how to help these 75 survive. In my mind, I know it is unlikely that any of them will, but I choose to close my heart to this; I choose to ignore the thought of hungry sharks swimming along the beach, and sea gulls skimming the water. I choose hope, as I watch these babies like a nervous mother, wishing only the best for these small creatures as I send them towards their watery destiny.