Volunteers burn the midnight oil watching for hatchings

John Cain

John Cain, hospital and Turtle Project volunteer, stands at the nesting display to greet visitors.

Published: Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 02:02 PM.

Burning the midnight oil

With nesting season drawing to a close at the end of the month, our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers move on to the night shift. Even though it looks like we’re going to end up with only about 50 nests that’s still a lot of nights spent on the beach through October, hoping and waiting. 

There’s no way for us to know exactly what day and what time those tiny critters will finally boil out of their nest. It’s about 60 days after mama tucked them into the sand, but sea turtles don’t care much for rules and guidelines. Being flexible and waiting for the right time is probably one of the secrets of their survival. Maybe we all need to take a cue from them!

So how do our volunteers know when to start their nightly monitoring, other than that 60-day thing? As the babies begin hatching there’s a lot of activity down in the nest, with eggs breaking and the little guys kicking each other around. All that commotion disturbs the sand at the surface and it starts to sink. When that happens our volunteers begin “ramping” the sand, smoothing it from the nest to the hard-pack, and building little barrier walls on the sides so that these babes have a runway of sorts when they’re ready for take-off. Then it’s show up at dusk, sit and wait. 

Just underneath the sand the critters have congregated near the top, waiting for a sign that it’s safe to come out and face the world. Once the sun goes down and the sand cools instinct tells them that the predator population has probably (hopefully) dropped and the darkness will give them additional protection. Somebody always has to be first, so one brave little soul pops through, looks around and is off. Hot on his rear flippers are all of his brothers and sisters, coming out so fast that it really does look like the nest is “boiling.” 

Now it’s time for our volunteers, who have been waiting on site (answering questions and explaining the process to excited visitors) to spring into action. They benignly shepherd these little creatures from the nest to the surf, making sure they stay on track, heading into the water and not toward somebody’s porch light. They’ll shoo away any ghost crabs and gulls looking for a late evening snack and generally just keep the path clear and all activity in the area to a minimum. They’re trained for anything out-of-the-ordinary and are authorized under our Endangered Species Act and other federal permits to do whatever is necessary to maintain order. 

Once those tiny flippers hit the surf they’re on their own for the long swim (40 – 60 miles) out to the driftlines of sargassum seaweed where they’ll spend their first few years camouflaged, eating and growing. Our loggerhead ladies will not return to the beach for more than 35 years, the age at which they reach sexual maturity. 

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