By Emily Fisher, Oceana
The sun is setting as I step off the ferry on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. I head straight for the beach -– I’m here representing Oceana‘s Save Sea Turtles campaign, and I’m itching to see some loggerhead hatchlings.
Maureen, the cheerful senior naturalist at the Bald Head Island Conservancy, shepherds me to nest #89 (out of 104 this year), which she thinks is my best chance to see brand new loggerheads. The BHIC is one of a handful of programs in the Southeast that does all-night beach patrols from mid-May to mid-August, and they’ve been collecting sea turtle data since 1980.
According to Maureen, the loggerhead populations of North Carolina are thought to be an important component to the overall male loggerhead population because of the lower temperature of the sand here. Sea turtle sex is determined by the temperature at which the turtles incubate; cooler sand means males, warmer means females. So the beaches in Florida, for example, hatch primarily female turtles. As the planet warms, the N.C. population could become even more critical because it will be hatching a larger portion of the male loggerheads in the Atlantic.
While there are a few factors that could theoretically be improved here -– less light pollution on the beach, and fewer foxes –- overall, Bald Head is an ideal place to be a hatchling or a nesting mother. The same is not true for many loggerheads in the United States. While the turtles have been protected as a threatened species for decades, their numbers continue to decline, primarily because of coastal development on nesting beaches and trawl nets that capture turtles incidentally while seeking seafood like scallops and shrimp.
Out on the beach, I wait for several hours with the rest of the sea turtle devotees and volunteers. But at midnight, there’s still been no movement in the nest — the sand hasn’t budged. My eyelids are drooping, and I have a feeling the turtles aren’t coming out tonight. I head home to bed; I’ll keep waiting.
The following morning, I do see some sea turtle babies — only they’re less, um, lively than I was hoping. I watch as two volunteers excavate dead loggerheads from a nest that was washed over by stormy surf. As climate change warms our oceans, the Atlantic in this case, tropical storms and hurricanes are becoming more intense, which could increase the risk of drowning for sea turtle nests like this one. Just this season, the conservancy lost 13 nests to Tropical Storm Hanna. It’s a sobering sight, and now I’m even more determined to see some live turtles.
As dusk arrives, it’s time to check in with loggerhead nest #89 again. A few dozen spectators have gathered, and before long, the sand starts moving, or "simmering," in sea turtle-speak, a reference to what happens when all the turtles come pouring out of the nest -– a "full boil." (Isn’t it strange that we use cooking terms for this?)
When a tiny black head peeks through the sand, then a flipper appears, there are gasps all around. It’s clear we are about to witness something remarkable. One tiny sea turtle forces its way up out of the sand -– followed almost instantaneously by about a hundred of its siblings.
But there’s no avoiding the question that we’re all thinking as we watch the waves carry the turtles out to sea. Will even one of these hatchlings survive to become a mature loggerhead? A baby sea turtle has less than a one percent chance of surviving to maturity in the ocean. Their best hope for now is to lodge themselves in a big clump of Sargassum and float along with the current.
The Bald Head Island Conservancy and its cadre of volunteers have done everything they can to make sure the little ones made it to the ocean alive. But now that they’re in the sea, the dangers multiply — there’s fishing gear like nets, dredges and longlines; boat propellers; and an increasing amount of floating plastic garbage that may look like dinner.
So who will protect them now? In sea turtle conservation, if this particular beach is in BHIC’s jurisdiction, then the Atlantic Ocean, it appears, is Oceana‘s. With the baby sea turtles in the water at last, the torch has been passed to us.
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