Nearly 40 years ago I played the role of the sea turtle in my second grade class' production of the Japanese fairy tale Urashima Taro. Urashima is a fisherman who rescues a sea turtle from young boys who are abusing it on the beach.
Just over 20 years ago, while leading a trip to Cape Lookout, I assisted conservationist Keith Rittmaster in pinning down an enormous loggerhead momma on the beach while he tagged her flipper. She had just laid 101 eggs in a nest that took us an hour of digging to find so that we could carefully move it above the high tide line. Holding that beautiful creature down felt like holding back a mini-trackhoe as it tried to make its way back to the sea. I was eye to eye with the biggest barnacle I’d ever seen. (How long can barnacles live? It looked like a 40 yr old barnacle.)
After years of seeing marked turtle nests on the beach of Edisto Island, last night I finally witnessed the end result of all the promising stakes and hopeful flagging. Volunteer turtle patrols spend countless hours tracking and safeguarding the egg-laying activities of loggerheads on beaches throughout the southeast.
Sea turtles are faced with numerous threats to survival. Some are natural: raccoons and ants are among the myriad nest predators; crabs and seabirds pluck the baby turtles from the beach and the surf; and one hurricane can wipe out hundreds of nests. Many other threats are anthropogenic: adult turtles (which can take 35 years to reach maturity, and may live to 100 or more) are often killed in shrimp nets; artificial lights from beach development lure hatchlings away from the ocean; and human beach traffic is intense during nesting season, sometimes momma turtles get spooked from laying, and nests can be disturbed or crushed.
One of the marked nests on the beach had caved in the previous day, so we knew that turtles had hatched, and were waiting to emerge. Volunteers had cordoned it off, and constructed a light shield and a chute out of black landscape fabric. Last night, we went to check on the nest at 9 p.m. and with our red flashlights saw subtle signs of movement in the nest. Moments later, turtles began to bubble forth. One after another, the little black balls of pure determination hustled and tumbled to the sea. We counted 17 baby loggerheads emerge from the nest. As soon as they exited the chute, some turned towards the light from nearby beach houses. While we watched their progress with red lights, my son played the role of the moon, and stood in the surf and shining a white light to guide them home. Within minutes, all 17 had disappeared into the ocean. Perhaps a few will make it all the way to their nursery in the Sargasso Sea. And maybe 40 years from now, one will return to this very beach to lay her eggs.