This past week I had the opportunity to witness a newly hatched loggerhead turtle make its initial journey to the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t even know this was supposed to be on my lifetime bucket-list but I encourage you to add it to yours.
Through the generosity of friends, Jenni and I were invited to spend a few days at Edisto Beach, SC. We were really there for the chance to catch up with our friends, but on our first evening walk along the beach they pointed out several areas at the edge of the sand dunes that were staked off and some that had black erosion fencing stretching from them to the beach. We learned that this was all part of protecting the nests of loggerhead turtles.
A legion of highly trained volunteers, affectionately referred to as the Turtle People in our conversations that week, patrol and protect the beach all in the name of encouraging the propagation of the species. I understood that they were granted certain powers, such as the right to knock on your door to remind you “lights out” if your house lights were too bright and, thus, disorienting to newly hatched turtles. They also monitored any holes that were dug in the sand since a baby turtle could get trapped. Feeding seagulls is discouraged for obvious reasons.
A visit to the Edisto Beach State Park Environmental Learning Center provided some startling facts. (At least startling to someone who had no clue about the life of a loggerhead). Careful identification and record keeping revealed that some females lay multiple nests in a summer. The Center had numbers showing at least three particular turtles who had each dug THREE nests in the same month, laying over a hundred eggs each time!
A nest of eggs takes about sixty days to incubate and hatch. The hatchlings emerge at night in what is referred to as a “boil”. The sand looks like it is boiling as a hundred little turtles crawl out and head to the ocean. We were not able to witness a “boil” while we were there, but I did get to see what happens next.
The Turtle People know when a nest has hatched. Four days later a volunteer digs out the nest. They take a careful count of hatched and unhatched eggs. Often they will find one or two stragglers who have been languishing in the hole, having missed the big night.
On this particular morning, just after 6:30 am, the volunteer found one surviving straggler in a nest that had hatched earlier in the week. He was #104. She placed the little one in a bucket while she carefully counted eggs. There were the 104 that hatched and 25 that did not. When she was done, she placed all the eggs back in the hole and covered it. She then carried the bucket closer to the ocean. I was surprised the tardy hatchling wasn’t made to crawl the entire way but I think he was already exhausted. When she poured him out of the bucket, he turned back toward the nest. With gloves on, she redirected him and, again, he turned away from the ocean. At that point, she pulled her phone from her pocket and turned on the flashlight. Instantly the little guy began following the light reflecting on the sand and made his way to the ocean!
As the waves enveloped him, he began to swim. For a minute or two we could see his head occasionally pop up for air and then he would be gone again. And then we didn’t see him anymore.
Experts believe hatchlings may spend a decade in the ocean before returning as juveniles to forage near coastlines. A female may be 35 years-old before she is considered mature and returns to the same beach to lay her eggs.
If the opportunity ever avails itself, I highly recommend watching an event like this—even if coffee has to wait until later.