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.
Tracks left in the sand by a mature female ascending the beach to lay her eggs. They do this at night when heat and predators are less of a problem.
Loggerhead turtle nest. This one is being moved upshore to keep it out of the drowning high tides.
The nest chamber is dug by the female with her back flippers.
Loggerhead sea turtle egg. Unlike many reptilian eggs, sea turtles egg shells are partly calcified, giving them the feel of a bird egg.
Ghost crab — they live in deep burrows and love to eat turtle eggs.
The new nest site is protected with a wire mesh. This keeps raccoons and feral pigs from digging up the eggs.
The cooler of turtles arrives…
…and is admired.
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.