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Oceana Magazine Winter 2009: Pilgrimage to the Sea

A trip to one of America's best sites for spotting sea turtle hatchlings

By Emily Fisher


On my first night on Bald Head Island, North Carolina in mid-September, I learned a valuable lesson. Baby sea turtles, like their human counterparts, arrive on their own time and nobody else's.

Around 60 days after the mother turtle lumbers ashore in a trance-like state to lay her eggs, her hatchlings will make a break for the sea any time after sunset and before sunrise. Sometimes it happens conveniently after supper and before the Colbert Report, but it could be at 3 a.m. Sitting on the beach next to a loggerhead nest, eyelids drooping, I decided to take this opportunity to practice patience.

Maureen Dewire, the cheerful senior naturalist at the Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC), had shepherded me to nest 89 (out of 104 this year), which she said was my best chance to see hatchlings. The bowl-shaped depression in the sand indicated that the still-buried turtles were out of their shells, pushing upwards with their flippers. The BHIC is one of a handful of programs in the Southeast United States that holds all-night beach patrols from mid-May to mid-August, and has collected sea turtle data since 1980. Aside from foxes and light pollution, Bald Head is a good place to be a hatchling or a nesting mother. "There are no big high rises, no condos, no roads running parallel to the beach and no ATVs," Dewire said. "We are really fortunate not to have to deal with those problems."

On the Bald Head Beach under a bright moon, the only immediate obstacle for the hatchlings was low tide. The ten yards from the nest's perch on the dune ridge to the breaking surf seemed far for a palm-sized sea turtle to go. The crowd of sea turtle devotees chatted about their expectations, keeping one eye on the nest, which lay conspicuously still. At midnight, there was still no sign of the turtles, and I had a feeling this wasn't the night. I headed home to bed, hoping they would stay buried until tomorrow.

**

Some sea turtle nests never do hatch. The next morning at dawn, I watched as two volunteers excavated more than 100 dead loggerhead hatchlings from a nest that was washed over by stormy surf. In silence, they separated the turtles into piles: hatched dead, unhatched dead and partially hatched dead, or "pipped." They counted each pile, tossed the unhatched and pipped turtles back into the sand nest and then carried the hatched dead to the water, releasing them into the waves.

As climate change warms the oceans, tropical storms and hurricanes are likely to become more intense, which could increase the risk of drowning for sea turtle nests like this one. This season, the conservancy lost 13 nests to tropical storm Hanna.

Global warming has other consequences for sea turtles as well. Sea turtle gender is determined by the temperature at which the turtles incubate; cooler sand means males, warmer means females. The beaches in Florida hatch primarily female turtles. As the planet warms, the N.C. population will become even more critical because its cool sands will hatch a larger portion of the male loggerheads in the Atlantic.

As Jean Beasley, who runs a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation center on Topsail Island, N.C., put it, "They've survived millions of years, but they can't survive what we are doing to the planet today."

Loggerheads face even more challenges as adults. While the turtles have been protected as a threatened species for decades, their numbers continue to decline, primarily due to fishing gear that kills turtles incidentally as bycatch and coastal development on nesting beaches. All of the nesting populations along the U.S. Atlantic coast are experiencing significant declines. In Florida, nesting has declined more than 40 percent in the past decade.

**

Later on, it was time to check in with loggerhead nest 89 again. By 7 p.m., a few dozen spectators had gathered. Within an hour, the sand began to shift, or "simmer," a good sign that before too long, we'd see all the turtles clamber out of the nest at once - a "full boil."

At last, a tiny black head peeked through the sand, and then a flipper appeared. Amid gasps from the crowd, one miniature sea turtle forced its way out of its sand womb. Busting through the protective wire cage like a fugitive, it toddled with purpose down the sand runway smoothed out a day earlier by volunteers.  Dozens of its siblings followed suit - a mad dash on flippers.

As we watched the turtles' quick pilgrimage to the sea - the whole thing lasted fewer than 20 minutes - I wondered if even one of these hatchlings would survive to adulthood. Fishing gear like nets, dredges and longlines, boat propellers and plastic garbage mistaken for food add up to a hazardous environment: A baby sea turtle has less than a one percent chance of surviving to maturity. 

 "You see the tiny hatchling hit the ocean and you say, ‘Are you really gonna survive out there?'" Dewire said. "You do as much as you can on the beach and hope they make it on their own. It can be a perilous feeling." 

Enter Oceana. In sea turtle conservation, if this particular beach is in the Bald Head Island Conservancy's jurisdiction, then the Atlantic Ocean, it appears, is Oceana's. With the hatchlings in the water at last, the torch was passed to us.

 

Oceana's Campaign

In 2009, Oceana's Save Sea Turtles campaign will continue working with Congress on the United States' first comprehensive sea turtle legislation. The Sea Turtle Protection Act will provide expansive protection for sea turtles in U.S. waters by creating a Sea Turtle Commission that will oversee the survival and recovery of sea turtle populations. The legislation would aim to:

  • Recover sea turtle populations by 2040 and maintain flourishing populations thereafter.
  • Reduce sea turtle bycatch.
  • Designate protected sea turtle habitat areas. 

The campaign is also working to get western North Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles uplisted from "threatened" to "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. In response to an Oceana petition, the National Marine Fisheries Service is conducting a detailed review of the species to determine if it requires uplisting. The agency also took action to reduce loggerhead bycatch in the scallop fishery.

"The action is not nearly enough but it is a good first step," said Elizabeth Griffin, a marine scientist at Oceana. The scallop fishing industry has recently filed a lawsuit over the new requirements.

In addition, the campaign works to reduce sea turtle deaths due to fishing gear like trawls and longlines. For more on the campaign, visit Oceana.org/sea-turtles.