Baby sea turtles hatch!

August 10, 2013 at 5:13 am (Nature, Photography, Wildlife) (, , , , , , )

Newly emerged sea turtle hatchling

Newly emerged sea turtle hatchling

It was hard to see the little heads and flippers in the bowl of sand that was their nest.  The little loggerhead sea turtles were well disguised, but every so often a bit of sand would move – a flipper.  These guys had already hatched a foot or two below, where the eggs were laid, and had scrambled to the top, under the layer of sand until its coolness signified night had arrived.  The cover of darkness would hide them from predators.  We watched them under dim red lights.

A few hatchlings had already emerged.  Imprinted in their brains was the need to run to the sea.  The lightest part of their natural world is the horizon, and they headed toward it.  Once free of the womb that had sheltered them for 63 days in Nest 11 on Jekyll Island, Georgia, they were super-charged.  Tiny flippers dug into the sand as if nothing would stop them.  We watched in darkness until the tiny black spot disappeared, then our red lights again played on the top of the nest to see which sibling would be next.

This nest didn’t “boil” like many do, with 60 to 80 hatchlings emerging within minutes and making the mad scramble to the sea.  Nest 11 was more of a trickle.  When the next baby finally decided it was time to dig out, the turtle specialist Nicole picked it up and showed it to the assembled people who had come on this walk sponsored by the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.  This was one of the last walks to look for nesting mother loggerheads, as their season was winding down.  But a nest of emerging babies had been spotted, a rare event to witness, so we went there instead.  About 40 people looked on quietly, hopefully.  They had already been told about the odds of survival.  One in four thousand makes it to reproductive age of 30 years.  Their worst predator is us.

Accidental drowning in fishing nets, poaching eggs, boat strikes, destruction of their nesting dunes, artificial lights that disorient the hatchlings, holes dug in the sand by children, plastic bags and trash that look like food, oil spills, and more hazards are created by humans.  Add that to the natural hazards and you have all five species of Georgia sea turtles on the Endangered Species List.

Around 1 a.m. everyone had left except four of us.  We stared at the depression of sand, willing those little flippers to come to life.  We were soon rewarded when four babies decided to begin the long journey to the rest of their lives.  We watched in darkness, our wishes for a safe journey sent silently on the gentle breeze.

Loggerhead nest dug out by turtle center staff, with hatched eggs in the box

Loggerhead nest dug out by turtle center staff, with hatched eggs in the box

A week later, the GSTC led a dawn walk to Nest 28.  These babies had already left several days earlier.  The nest would be excavated, the hatched and unhatched eggs counted, and any hatchlings that had not gotten out on their own would be released.  David did not have to dig far before he encountered a baby.  Caked in sand, it looked like a rough sculpture, but as it tried to find its way out of the box it was put in, the sand fell away, revealing the tiny shell and eyes and flippers.

Nest Walk participants watch hatchling run to the sea

Nest Walk participants watch hatchling run to the sea

There were no more stranded babies.  David said it was important that the hatchlings imprint on the beach where they were born, so they would know where to return to begin the next generation.  The baby was set on the beach and like a laser-guided missile it raced to the sea.  It was literally running for its life.  Ghost crabs can snatch a baby into their holes day or night, but gulls and terns can take them in daylight.  Yet the sea is full of things bigger than it is, waiting for a little turtle snack.

Waves push the baby back to the beach

Waves push the baby back to the beach

We watched the waves take the baby out, then push it back onto the beach.  Now burdened with clods of wet sand on its flippers, it stubbornly thrust forward, back into the waves.   It made it on the third try, its little form visible for just a few seconds before it became one with the sea.  Unless it comes ashore to lay eggs or is sick or injured, it will never again touch land.  The sea will be its lifelong home.

Sand "boots" make it harder, but it is determined to make it this time.

Sand “boots” make it harder, but it is determined to make it this time.

Several decades’ of protection of these sea giants is now beginning to pay off.  Nest totals on the Georgia coast have increased, and 2013 is setting a record.  So far the state has recorded 2243 nests, with at least 172 nests on Jekyll Island.  (Last year’s total was 197.)  But unless we significantly increase the odds, these gentle creatures will always be on the cusp of survival as a species.

If the video doesn’t imbed, click here to see the baby running to the sea:

Join the Georgia Sea Turtle Center or other groups to help in the effort to protect them.  Pick up trash on the beach.  Be a good beach citizen.  We are earth’s stewards.  Long live the sea turtle!

See also the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Turtle Conservation page and for Georgia and other statistics.

Photographs and video copyright Cindy McIntyre 2013

Feel free to reblog or share

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