The following, Turtles Dig the Dark, is an article I wrote for a local women’s magazine called, WOMAN. The article, listed on the front cover can be found at http:/www.scwomanmagazine.com/.
I’m a huge animal advocate. So, when I first moved to South Carolina last year, I thought about volunteering for the turtle conservation season. However, because I desperately needed bi-lateral knee replacement, I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Instead, last year and this year too I decided to foster abandoned or injured ducklings for a local animal rescue foundation. I raise the ducklings (2 last year and 3 this year) in order to release them to the wild. The wild is one of two large ponds across the street from my house. We live on a loop which runs around the perimeter of the two very large ponds.
For three years I did everything I could to avoid the operation. However, because my knees were causing me to become almost incapacitated last summer, I turned myself in to an orthopedic surgeon who performed the operation last October. Like so many who finally have the operation, my response to anyone asking is, “I should have had the surgery earlier than I did.”
I’m now participating in the 2015 Turtle Conservation Season!
Last Tuesday, my patrol partners, a married couple, and I had a full morning with lots of excitement. First, we found evidence of a turtle crawl which turned out to be a real crawl vs. a false one.
On a false crawl, the female turtle crawls up from the tide intending to lay her eggs, but becomes spooked causing her to abandon her mission as she turns around and crawls back into the ocean. We’ve witnessed one false crawl and two live crawls.
Today, as we walked our assigned portion of Huntington Beach State Park, north end, we saw the wire cage around the nest we found and marked last week. This morning, and soon after passing our nest, we spotted a new crawl with a huge pile of sand at the end of the crawl marks making it our second find for the season. I can’t describe the pride and joy we all experienced last Tuesday and again today. It makes getting up at 5 a.m. worth the torment. (I’m not a morning person. Well, for that matter, I’m not an evening person either. Instead, years ago I declared myself a middle-of the-day person!)
More Excitement: In addition to finding the nest last Tuesday, we also rescued a sea loon that became stranded up on the shore. After calling a local bird rescuer, we discovered that loons are known to fall asleep as they ride the waves during high tide. Because they are sound asleep, the tide recedes leaving the loon stranded too far from the low tide surf to make it back into the water. In the heat of the summer, the loon could become critically dehydrated.
Unlike other sea birds, their legs are not designed for them to simply stand straight up and walk out to the surf. Instead, their legs are designed more like oars with paddles at the end. Thus, they literally must be picked up and carried out to the ocean.
Since I am used to handling water fowl, I was the person who picked up the loon and sprinted down to the ocean. I put the bird down then realized her leg predicament because I put her down in water that was too shallow for paddling. So … I picked her back up and waded out to where the waves were hitting the tops of my knees before putting her down again. As I walked back to shore, I turned around to see that the loon was as happy as could be. She was splashing around and joyfully flapping her wings as she bobbed on the waves.
So far this year, there are eight turtle nests identified and marked at Huntington State Park Beach. Four (including our two) are located on the North end of the beach which ends at a jetty. If you consider that an average nest contains 115 eggs, about 50-60 days from now, there could be potentially 920 baby turtles scurrying down the sand toward the ocean. The only thing that would top finding two (maybe more to come) nests would be to witness a hatching called a boil.
I hope you enjoy the following article as much as I’ve enjoyed turtle patrol as well as writing the article.
Turtles Dig the Dark
By Maribeth Shanley
It’s turtle conservation season in South Carolina. The season runs from mid-May through October. I am one of the volunteers who walks the beaches in search of mainly Loggerhead turtle nests. As are most sea turtles, the Loggerhead is an endangered species.
As a volunteer, my day begins at 5 a.m. I walk the north end portion of the Huntington Park Beach shoreline. I am new to turtle conservation as is the couple I walk the beach with. We begin our walk immediately after the park opens its gates at 6 a.m. We walk from the north end walkway up to the jetty; about a 1.3 mile walk. Early morning walks are critical. If there are turtle nests, we need to mark and report them before the beach begins to populate with beach goers.
On my first day, my husband asked if I really wanted to get up that early. Groggy and slightly regretting the early morning rise, I simply replied, “It’s tough getting up this early; but, I may just be rewarded with seeing an actual nest, or, better yet, get to witness the baby turtles run to the ocean.”
As we walk the beach along the high tide line, we watch for crawl marks. Like footprints in the sand, every specie of turtle in this area has a distinct crawl print. Where land turtles have feet with claws, sea turtles have flippers. The footprints they leave look like swim prints. As they glide effortlessly in the ocean, they must use those same swim strokes to pull themselves along the sand to a safe area in which to dig their nest, lay their eggs then return to the ocean. Unlike birds, turtles do not stay with their nest. Once they’ve found a safe place to dig the nest and lay their eggs, their job is done.
So, why do sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach? Too, why is it so important for humans to respect the widely publicized “lights out” conservation requests?
Turtle eggs are alive!
They’re breathing organisms which must breathe oxygen to survive. Daytime heat deters the female turtle from laying her eggs during daylight hours. Once night falls, the sand cools down making her crawl bearable.
Imagine that you are a huge, 150-375 lb. sea turtle. In the water, you feel light. On land, you feel heavy, awkward, and scared. Any unusual activity deters you from laying your eggs. The only light you know is that of the sun and moon. You know the difference between natural and artificial lighting. Thus, any artificial lights, e.g., flashlights, phones and camera flash feels threatening.
Once you emerge from the ocean and begin your crawl, if you find your portion of the beach is safe, you crawl to an area above the high tide water line. There you dig your nest, lay an average of 115 eggs in the hole then scatter sand on top to disguise the nest. Loggerheads will lay an average of five clutches meaning they must do this several times during the season. Incubation for the eggs averages 50-60 days.
When a volunteer finds a nest, he/she marks it off with sticks that have colorful plastic tails which wave in the wind. Photos must be taken at many angles showing where the nest is located. Huntington Beach now has numbered markers so the volunteer can further identify where the nest is located. Once the nest is reported and found, conservationists fence it off protecting the eggs from predators.
Typically the female turtle will instinctively know where the high tide line is. Sometimes, however, she may become spooked causing her to dig her nest too close or even below the tide line. When that happens, the location must be immediately reported so the nest can be physically moved to a dry location. Turtle eggs are alive. If too close to the tide line and the nest fills with water, the eggs will drown.
One additional duty of a volunteer is to pick up trash left on the beach by humans. Plastic bags and pieces of plastic bags especially are detrimental to a sea turtle. The plastic looks like jelly fish, a delicacy of the turtle. If a bag or piece of pliable plastic is ingested, the turtle could choke and die.
The greatest reward for a turtle conservationist or volunteer would be to experience hatchlings emerge from their nest. Called a boil, the tiny turtles use a temporary egg tooth called a carbuncle to break through their eggs. Once out, they emerge from the nest and begin their scramble to the ocean. Most boils occur at night, when there is less exposure to daytime predators. However, because of the number of eggs, it could take several nights for all the turtles to surface to make their run.
Since the female turtle returns to the vicinity of her birth, the turtles that do make it to the water may very well, one day be the Loggerhead turtle who crawls back out of the ocean to crawl the shore of Huntington Beach to lay her eggs. The life cycle usually takes about 30 years for the female to mature and become fertile.
Next time you head to the shores, think about our turtle friends and other sea creatures. As you do, please remember to pick up ALL your trash and take it with you. Enjoy the beach and all it has to offer.