Two nights ago, Gale Bishop has his colleagues at the St Catherine’s Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program were kind enough to invite the Sewanee Island Ecology Program crew along on the year’s first release of baby turtles. These little hatchlings all came from the same nest, a nest that was dug out by hand (not flipper) to save it from a predatory ghost crab that had started to munch its way through the clutch. The crab got three; one hundred and fourteen were released.
The turtles were kept through the day in a cooler (to keep them at the temperature of their sandy nest deep in a dune), then taken to the beach at sunset. This timing mimics the natural rhythm of hatching: the youngsters emerge at night when they are a little safer from the heat of the sun and from beach-hunting predators. They dig their way out of the nesting burrow high on the beach, then crawl down the sand (they all know which way to go) into the breaking surf. Once in the water, the turtles swim away, surfacing for gulps of air, then head out to the open ocean.
Many of these young turtles will follow the Atlantic gyre, passing Iceland, then Northern Europe, then Portugal, the Azores, finally ending up in the Sargasso Sea where they will live until they reach sexual maturity in about thirty years. Some will avoid the swirl of the Atlantic and swim directly to the Sargasso Sea. The “long and perilous journey” cliché applies here: one in a thousand will survive to breed. When mature, the females come back to shore to lay their eggs; the males never again set foot on land.
So if I’m lucky enough to reach my seventies, I’ll make a return trip to this island. If the hatchlings survive natural predators, legions of fishing boats (up to thirty massive shrimp trawlers at a time off this beach alone), and an ocean filled with tangling, choking garbage, I’ll greet again the turtles that we released onto the beach today. What will the beach be like in thirty years? It is presently eroding at two meters per year, a rate that will accelerate in a world with warmer, stormier, higher seas. But I hope some sand will still be here to greet the mothers as they crawl ashore.
Letting these youngsters go was an emotionally charged occasion. Turtles are ancient creatures, one hundred and forty million years on this OceanEarth, older than the flowering plants, older than most dinosaurs and mammals, and older than Homo rapaciens which has been around for a mere turtle’s blink, two hundred thousand years. Yet in the short time that humans have been here, we’ve pushed all sea turtle species to the edge of extinction. The vulnerability of the little hatchlings and the long long odds that each one faces, odds worsened considerably by the gutted state of the oceans, is profoundly sad. But the vigor and determination of the little turtles is an incarnation of hope, optimism scribed in turtle flesh: damn the odds, I’m headed down this beach with flippers whirring, then I’m taking to the dark ocean with gusto to swim into my fate. All this produces a powerful combination of feelings and thoughts in the watching bipeds. Several of us had tight throats and drops of ocean water in our eyes as we watched the turtles leave.
The photos below include a few from earlier in the week to illustrate the nesting process, then some of the release.
The following photographs are from the release of the turtles onto the beach. The hatchlings propel themselves down the beach on their flippers, then get caught up in the breaking waves.
Great photo documentation! These are wonderful photos that tell the full story of the loggerhead egg laying sessions. What type camera did you use to document this event?
Glad you liked the photos! I use a Panasonic DMC-FZ18 (“Lumix”). This is a point-and-shoot with a good lens. Not as fancy (or as good) as an SLR, but it is lightweight and has an excellent close focus — great for flowers, bugs, and baby turtles…
Home rapaciens – that’s good. Time to reread the section of your book The Forest Unseen where you find the golf balls in the mandala of forest you watched for a year – and try to forgive ourselves as a species – but it’s hard! Way to go little turtles! I think of this every year with every batch of bunnies and quail chicks I ooh and ah over.
Yes, some compassion all around, if possible. Forgiveness in action = reformation and restoration.
This brings back fond memories of Island Ecology! I remember sitting in a tree for hours in total darkness, bizarre wings buzzing past me and TKL telling me to cut the chatter on the radio. How’s the pig population? It was booming when I was there. Does the lab still have Mac IIc’s?
TKL retired this year, so this was my first time teaching the section. No tree sits in darkness under my tutelage, but we had some fun anyway. I have a problem with chatter on the radio also — apparently witty backchat is not part of the ethos, a shame really, what else were radios invented for? Ten four. Still lots of pigs. Now armadillos too. The Mac IIs were buried at sea in a moving ceremony. We have Windows 95 as a replacement.
I’ve always wanted to witness this — so I’m very glad to see your post (found via a friend’s RT on Twitter). Beautiful photos!
Thank you, Julia!
One of the interns working with Gale Bishop this year is Katie Wakefield, a Sewanee student who was in the 2010 SEI program. She was so glad to have the first turtle release with the Sewanee students!
I know Katie well — a fabulous student. She had the honor of carrying the cooler to the beach! She is in the center of the photo with the cooler (colorful shirt).
We see protected turtle nests all the time on Tybee Island, but we never see what happens to them once they hatch; this provides a lovely ending to the story. I wish them well.
Hi Virginia, Thank you for this. I looked into the Tybee situation and it seems that they also have a sea turtle program: http://tybeemarinescience.org/sea-turtle-project. So these must be the people who put up the protections. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a great spot.
I saw this article on my trip in Florida. The beaches are FILLED with nests..marked with poles. I think of the people working every day to mark the nests and protect the turtles as much as they can. We had poaching problems in Florida too :( About 12 years ago I had the honor to hold a baby leatherback turtle in my hands and the rangers brought a bunch of little turtles to the water for release. I think I may have a pic somewhere and will share if I find it. So does this mean in 18 years some of those may return to that beach?? I don’t know if same cycle as Loggerheads. I would go to visit :) again…
This article is so good. Thank you, David. I love the pictures as well.
Thank you, Debbie. I’ve never seen a leatherback — that must have been a very special moment. They mature in 25-30 yrs (according to this article: http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2009/8/n008p165.pdf).
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