What’s the opposite of “empty nest” syndrome?

Ask any of our hospital volunteers and we’ll tell you: it’s having more than 50 hungry hatchings, only days to weeks old, housed in individual “condos” under our care. Their nests emptied alright — right into our hands.

We were almost home free, with only a few nests still incubating and the warm weather continuing into October. But it all came crashing down with the arrival of a nasty cold front and the quickly approaching super hurricane Sandy. Turtle projects up and down the coast made quick assessments of any remaining nests that might be in jeopardy. Our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers were closely watching a nest here on the island, and it happened to hatch the night before the brunt of the storm was expected. Volunteers watched as the babes scurried down the beach and into the waves. Some made it through; others struggled and were repeatedly washed back in to shore. A decision was made to pick up those exhausted critters, as well as any we found on the beach the next day and to give them refuge in our hospital. The surf was just too treacherous for man and beast.

At the same time, Charlie Baker and his Figure Eight Island team were dealing with a nest that was literally washing out. They carefully collected the pipping eggs in buckets and carried them off the beach, which was now inundated with water. As those eggs pipped and hatched out over the course of several days, the hatchlings were transported to our hospital for further care. We also had a good Samaritan bring us a lone hatchling he had found on Onslow Beach.

As the critters started arriving at our hospital in buckets (literally) we scoured the area stores for all of the hatchling-sized clear, oval-shaped containers we could find. Each hatchling would have to be carefully examined, gently cleaned, placed in shallow water in their new home (which is labeled with pertinent information about each turtle) and then watched carefully. The hatchings have an internal energy source that provides the nourishment they need for their long swim to the Sargasso Sea. That’s why we generally find that hatchlings are not very interested in food for the first few days: they arrive at the party with their own lunch (and breakfast and dinner). But it’s not long before they start sending their orders into our kitchen for something more substantial to chew on.

Throughout the years we’ve developed our own version of baby food that seems to please even the most discriminating hatchling palate. The task of preparing our secret mix of squishy, fishy and slightly green has fallen to Chef Jennifer, who spends hours at the hospital and at her home chopping and blending the stuff into a concoction that’s spread into trays, frozen and then broken into hatchling-sized portions at chow time. Feeding time in the high rise involves more than setting out the buffet and having our guests line up with tiny plates. Each hatchling is given their food and then monitored to make sure they’re eating. If they’re swimming around, snapping and chewing we leave them in peace to enjoy their meal. But when a baby is not eating we do some coaxing. Although you probably won’t hear our volunteers making “airplane noises” (although some do) feeding a reluctant hatchling is like feeding any reluctant baby: you swirl the food around in front of their noses trying to attract their attention, making it look yummy and simulating the motion of the food a sea turtle would find in the ocean.

After they’ve had a few hours to digest their meal, the housekeeping and spa treatments begin. Each hatchling gets a gentle bath and a thorough cleaning of their home. Once their “bed” of clean salt water has been made, they’re back in their room and ready for their afternoon nap. Later in the day the entire process is repeated as the dinner orders start arriving in our kitchen. This is the point at which all of our hospital volunteers take off our hats to Chef Jennifer: she organized the evening feeding, cleaning and bathing. If there were a trophy for a sea turtle hatchling super nanny it would be on her shelf.

As I’m writing this we just received word that our babies have confirmed space on a cruise to the Gulf Stream, courtesy of the research program at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in Beaufort. We’ll bundle them up for their trip and wish them a long and healthy sea turtle life. But we’ll keep our nursery available and ready for the next “emptied nest!”


The nights and waters are cold…

...So it’s probable that we’ll start to see cold-stunned turtles, especially the smaller Greens and Kemp’s. And just in case there are some late hatches from any nests, please keep your eyes peeled for babies pipping out and heading toward the sea. Please report any and all local sea turtle activity (late hatchings, strandings, injured, cold-stunned or sick turtles) immediately to our Director of Beach Operations, Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880. Terry can be reached at topsailseaturtle@aol.com for non-emergencies. You can also call our Director, Jean Beasley (910-470-2800) or the hospital (910-328-3377) to report activity if you are unable to reach of Terry. All sea turtles are federally protected and harassing or harming them in any way will result in hefty fines and/or imprisonment.


Hospital gift shop annex open on Tuesdays now through December 18

By popular request we have opened our gift shop annex for early holiday shopping. Every Tuesday from
8:30 to 10:30 a.m. you can stop by our hospital and ask for Peggy. She’ll escort you to the shop and be your personal shopping advisor on all sea turtle gifts. We have a nice supply of T’s (long and short sleeve), hoodies, hats, visors, bags and other “stuff.” Please be prepared to pay with cash or by check; we cannot accept credit cards at the annex. You can visit our website (www.seaturtlehospital.org) to preview the items and prepare your shopping list before your visit.

If you’re looking for a unique gift for the holidays or any other occasion, check out the patients on our current “Adopt-A-Sea-Turtle” list. Your contribution pays for their care during their rehabilitation, and you’ll be invited to their release once they’re cleared to go. There are levels of adoption to fit any budget, so click the adoption link on our website to ensure that your favorite turtle(s) and your family and friends don’t wake up to an empty Christmas stocking.


Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions regarding this column to me at flippers@att.net. To be added to the newsletter list e-mail me at the same address. If your e-mail address has recently changed, send me your new one so I can update my master list. You can also access the last newsletter from our website. The next issue, “How We Spent Our Year” is in development and will include our (anticipated) late-December move into the new facility. This column appears every other week until next spring, unless we have really exciting news to share!


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.