[Day 1 refresher: abandoning Cory on the beach around midnight, I drive the golf cart home sleepily and collapse in bed, filling my sheets with sand because I’m too tired and lazy to wash off my feet.]
At 5:45 my alarm goes off. It’s already time to go back to the beach, only this time there’s almost no chance I’ll be seeing any live sea turtles. I’m going to see Maureen (Bald Head Island Conservancy's head naturalist) and several volunteers perform two nest excavations, which are exactly what they sound like – digging up nests to see what’s inside.
In this case, the nests are long overdue to hatch, and Maureen says it’s not worth wasting any more of the nest monitors’ time and energy – it’s time to find out what’s going on under the sand. She warns Cory and me that it probably won’t be pretty (read: dead babies), but that we’re welcome to come along.
At the moment my alarm goes off, I think, “Sleep - or dead baby sea turtles?” I nearly choose the first, but force myself out the door. It’ll be like digging for buried treasure, I tell myself. (Except with the potential to be heartbreaking.) The sun is just starting to come up when we get out on the beach; it’s quite a lovely morning considering the task at hand. Ann, the nest monitor, puts on rubber gloves and gets immediately to work on nest #71, digging with her fingers like a dog looking for its buried bones.
It’s not long before she pulls out an egg like a sunken ping-pong ball with a pinkish hue. “Ah, it’s the fungus,” Maureen says. It appears the eggs weren’t even fertilized – when she rips one open it’s filled with bright pink goop. They all look like this, and there’s nothing they could have done about this nest, she explains. Sometimes it just happens, and it’s unclear why.
Ann unearths all the eggs to count them – 141 unrealized loggerhead sea turtles – and then returns them to the nest to be eaten later by predators. Now it’s on to nest #75 a few paces down the beach. This time Donna is the designated digger, and she’s efficient. Within moments, she brings up what we dreaded – a tiny sea turtle with sunken eyes and limp flippers. “Ooh, it smells down here,” she says, bringing up several more.
“Yep, they’ve probably been down there a few days,” Maureen replies. Donna sorts her unfortunate spoils into “hatched dead” (about 20), “pipped dead” (partially hatched – about 60), and unhatched (about 80). All in all, this nest bears a whopping 160 unrealized sea turtles. Maureen suspects the cause of death for nest #75 is storm overwash; if waves wash over a nest and the sand becomes hard-packed, the newly hatched sea turtles may not be able to get out as they normally would by pushing the sand upwards using their newly-developed flippers. In other words, they are buried alive.
Donna and Ann conduct a silent mini funeral, walking into the surf and depositing the hatched dead into the waves that they should have scampered into on their own. They’ll make a meal for other creatures in the sea, which provides a little solace. What happens next, however, does not. As we get in the Conservancy’s jeep-like vehicle to head off the beach, we spy a fox at the nest we just excavated.
He (could be a she, but at the risk of being gender-biased, he) stares us down less than six feet away, undeterred by the noisy rattling of the vehicle’s motor. We watch as he scavenges the nest, scarfing a few dead babies that Donna overlooked for the ocean funeral. And with the fox’s Sunday brunch well underway – all he needs is a mimosa – we drive off.
This morning’s events are a reminder of all the natural obstacles that loggerheads face. Whether it’s storm overwash, predators or pink fungus, they seem to have the odds stacked against them, and that’s without adding anthropogenic threats such as fishing nets and hooks, beach development, light pollution and climate change.
A mother loggerhead turtle may lay several clutches of around a hundred eggs in a summer. It seems like a lot, and while each egg’s odds of survival were never very good, they were good enough to sustain the population.
But that's becoming less true. Loggerhead nests are on the decline, according to a 2007 report by the National Marine Fisheries Service. But there's a bright spot to the morning: Maureen tells us that after we left last night, nest #89 didn’t hatch. Tonight’s our chance -- I resolve to see the babies make it out of their sandy womb alive.