Waiting for Hatchlings, Part 1
Greetings from Bald Head Island, North Carolina! I’m sitting on the porch of my parents’ beach house watching the waves break just over the dune ridge. It’s sunny, there’s a pleasant but insistent breeze, and a cicada chirps in a nearby tree.
Cory Wilson, expedition photographer, and I have been here for barely a day-and-a-half, and already there’s much to report. I’ll start from the beginning.
We arrive on the island at sunset after seven hours driving from DC. We are tired but relieved to find ourselves in a place where the only modes of transport are golf carts and one-speed bicycles and the main activities of the island include climbing the stone lighthouse known as “Old Baldy.”
After a brief stop at my favorite turtle pond to look for one of the island's gators, there's no more dallying. We’re on a mission – take us to the sea turtles, we tell our host, the Bald Head Island Conservancy’s (BHIC) head naturalist, Maureen Dewire. She directs us to loggerhead nest #89, which she thinks is “gonna go” tonight. “What time?” I ask. “Any time between sunset and sunrise,” she says. Oh. Why was I thinking there was a convenient window between 8 and 10 pm when they always come out? Wishful thinking. There are 104 nests at BHI this year – up from just 50 last year -- all loggerheads. They occasionally have a green sea turtle nest, but not this year, and they lost 13 nests to tropical storm Hanna a few weeks ago.
Maureen tells us it’s only been 51 days since the eggs were laid in nest #89. The average gestation is around 60 days, but all the signs are right for hatching -- these might just be preemies. There’s a cone-shaped depression in the sand, about six inches deep, indicating that the babies have hatched out of their shells and are pushing the sand around above them, gathering the collective gumption to make their way to the sea.
It’s about 8 o’clock. The moon is full and the tide is high -- the conditions seem perfect. The dedicated volunteers of the BHIC have built a sand “runway” for the babies – a flat chute from the nest to the hard packed sand on the beach. Every nest on the island is assigned a nest monitor, a full-time resident (there are only a few hundred of them here) who will make sure the nest, which is covered with a wire cage, remains undisturbed by the island’s many foxes, tropical storms, or disrespectful humans.
Donna is the monitor for #89, and she’s an old hand at this, having seen around 40 or 50 hatchings. Is it still impressive? I ask. “Oh, yes. Amazing,” she says. A crowd of around 30 people has gathered – evidently the word has gotten out about nest #89, and it’s nearly a party. Some people have flashlights with red cellophane on them – white light disturbs the turtles, red doesn’t – and some brought chairs. Everyone’s exchanging turtle stories and keeping an eye on the nest.
An hour in, the sandy bowl hasn’t changed a bit, but our enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Every once in a while Donna, turtle OB-GYN, gets out her stethoscope and sticks it in the sand, listening for movement. She listens for a few seconds, but there are so many people around that our footsteps will interfere with any turtle stirrings she might hear.
A few hours go by. At 10 o’clock, the crowd has dwindled to 15. Someone pulls out a bottle of white wine from a picnic basket and uncorks it. My day of driving is starting to kick in; I’m trying to fight the sleepiness but it’s not working – I’ve never been good at staying up late. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter, not even in college.
I spread out my towel to lie down for a minute, and when I wake up, there are only a few of us left. It’s down to Cory, me, and two women who came from Kansas and Colorado to see turtles hatch. They came last year but barely missed it. This year they are determined.
There’s still been no movement in the nest. Doubt and fatigue are setting in for me, and despite Cory’s insistence that we stay all night, I have a strong feeling that they aren’t going to come out tonight. I head home to bed around midnight. The next morning I learn that Cory stayed until 2, and the women until 5:30 (!) The nest didn’t budge – the turtles weren’t ready yet. We’ll keep waiting.