Last night, as we were getting ready to go for dinner here at the beach in North Carolina, my friend Brenda noticed a group of people setting their beach chairs alongside a cordoned-off area in seemingly great anticipation of an event.
She and my friend Debbie went down to the beach to check out what they were waiting for and it turns out they were there to witness a birth. More precisely, 48 of them. Our new friends were lining the edges of a sea turtle nest because, by their count, last night was possibly the night the turtles would hatch.
When we returned to dinner we ran into some of the folks and it turns out we had missed the big event (I’m still incredibly bummed about that). After one turtle poked its new baby head out of the sand and crawled out, another 47 followed. They all rushed down to the sea (or moved as quickly as little baby turtles can, which is not very) in a straight line off to their new lives. Apparently, it’s pretty perilous being a baby sea turtle and the odds of survival aren’t great, so I am rooting for our new companions to make it.
I remember reading in Pat Conroy’s “Prince of Tides” about the turtles’ race to the sea and it seems so poetic and yet primal at the same time. Today, I went to survey the roped-off area. Sand had blown over much of it, but the hole where the turtles made their way to the surface was still there, as were dozens of footprints from their little feet scurrying down to the water.
I didn’t know before I got here, but Topsail takes its sea turtle responsibilities very seriously and is a Sea Turtle Sanctuary. Tampering with a sea turtle nest is punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in jail. Because it is a sea turtle haven (the sea turtles come back and lay their eggs in the same spot), Topsail Island is also home to Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. The non-profit center, run by volunteers, treats sick and injured sea turtles and oversees the island’s nesting program.
According to the Rehab Center’s website, nesting season is mid-May through August and the eggs incubate in the sand for 60 days (the eggs that hatched yesterday did so after 57 days). The mama loggerhead sea turtle deposits an average of 120 eggs per nest. The little babies weigh two ounces and have to dodge crabs and birds to make it to the sea. If they get that far, then they still have to survive more birds and fish predators. Only about 1 in 1,000 survives the first year and only roughly 1 in 10,000 makes it to adulthood 20 years later. If they do make it that long, the moms return to their natal beaches lay their eggs.
Topsail has 26 miles of coastline and every morning during mating season volunteers survey each mile for sea turtle tracks and nests. Last year, the 85 nests yielded 9,869 eggs and 8,080 hatchlings.
It turns out that there is another nest right below where I’m staying and the incubation period for those eggs will be up next week. I will be on the look out for the gathering of the chairs and will join my new pals. I don’t want to miss this twice.
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