Day 2 (later that day)
Out on the beach the haloed moon is astonishingly bright, and seems to be directly in front of the turtle nest’s sand runway. There’s no question that if the turtles make it out alive, they’ll know where to go. By 8:30, a crowd of 15 people or so has gathered around the nest.
The two women from Kansas and Colorado are here again, and there are some newcomers, including a couple from Wisconsin. “How do they breathe under there? They’re buried alive!” the wife cries. Around 9, the sand starts to move.
Every few minutes, Donna the nest monitor says, “Did you see that?” The sand is moving, or “simmering,” in sea turtle-speak, a reference to what happens when all the turtles come pouring out of the nest – a “full boil.” I find it strange that we use cooking terms for this. Donna says it could be a few minutes now, or a few hours before the nest boils, it just depends. “It’s like a human baby, you just have to wait,” she says. “But this is my favorite part,” she continues. “Once it boils, it goes too fast.”
She lays out the ground rules for everyone present – stay back from the high tide line to avoid stepping on any turtles, and absolutely no touching. She asks for a volunteer to count the turtles. I volunteer and immediately regret it -- luckily I have a backup counter.
The nest is really simmering now. “Oh look, oh look!” The woman from Wisconsin exclaims whenever there’s a significant movement. Suddenly a tiny black thing peeks through the sand – it’s a turtle head, we decide, after staring at it for several minutes.
A flipper peeks through the sand. Gasps all around. The turtles (or at least the parts of them we can see) remain still for several minutes at a time – maybe because they are exhausted from pushing up on to the surface for several days. Everyone is watching the nest, rapt. Any moment now the simmer will become a boil.
Another head pops through, and then another flipper, and pretty soon it’s a sandy bowl full of turtle parts, and we know we are about to witness something remarkable. And then we do. One tiny sea turtle forces his way up out of the sand and through the wire cage – followed almost instantaneously by all of his brothers and sisters.
It’s as if they were all just waiting for the signal from a leader. Here they come, one after another, around a hundred baby sea turtles, surprisingly zippy on their new flippers and driven with a clear and singular purpose.
“Well, ain’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen,” one man says. I attempt to count the babies for, oh, about a minute. Counting baby sea turtles when you’ve never seen them before is like numbering the freckles on a loved one’s face the moment you step off the airplane from a long journey. I need to soak in the whole, joyous thing.
Cory is furiously photographing the babies with his red-filtered camera -- hence the above photo's red hue. The turtles don't see the red spectrum, so the light isn't disturbing. It takes about ten minutes for every turtle to make it to the water.
Once they start swimming, it takes a few waves before they’re gone – the tide keeps bringing them back. Standing on the shore, I can’t believe my luck. The day started with death and ended in birth.
But there’s no avoiding the question that everyone must be thinking as we watch the waves carry the turtles out to sea. Will even one of these babies survive to become a mature loggerhead? A baby sea turtle has less than a one percent chance of surviving to maturity in the ocean.
The Bald Head Island Conservancy and its cadre of volunteers have done everything they can to make sure the little ones made it to the ocean alive. But now that they’re at home in the sea, the dangers multiply. Who will protect them now? In sea turtle conservation, if this particular beach is in BHIC’s jurisdiction, then the Atlantic Ocean, it appears, is Oceana’s. With the baby sea turtles in the water at last, the torch has been passed to us.