The Turtle People
I ascended to the top of the boardwalk on my way down to the beach in front of my house, sometime around the beginning of this past summer. It would’ve been the middle of June, if I recall, and I noticed that a strange partition had been erected out in the middle of the beach, right in the sand. From a distance, it looked like it was marked off with crime scene tape, which is what got my attention.
Sea turtle hatchings, as it turns out, are about as serious as it gets out here on the beach.
There always seemed to be official people lurking around the site, and they watched the passersby with a tangible protectiveness. The dedicated men and women who tend to these nests and patrol the areas where they are located are the most committed people I believe I’ve ever met. They are very friendly, and highly knowledgable, but they’re not playing around about what they do. The gravity of their warnings to me about poorly placed lights and untimely storms was rivaled only by the excitement of a real-life sea turtle hatching right in front of my house. It’s a very bipolar experience for a person to undergo, at the same time both deadly important and exhilarating to anticipate.
During the two months since this group of babies first garnered my attention, I’ve been astonished at the great lengths a whole lot of extraordinary people go to in this area to protect these little guys on their long journeys to the ocean. Two months later, I sit here absolutely, completely in awe of everything I have learned.
The nest I’ve been watching, officially named #PB6251, is a Loggerhead nest. Loggerheads are one of several species of turtles that hatches along the Gulf Coast. Other turtles you’ll find here include Green Turtles, Leatherbacks and Kemp’s Ridley Turtles, but Loggerheads are by far in the majority. All of them are endangered.
Nests have, on average, about 110 eggs in them. Nest #6251 had 97 of the little boogers and this mama put her nest way up on the beach where the soft sand is.
The eggs incubate for 50 to 75 days. All throughout those two-plus months there’s an army of about twenty-five people, some paid, but over 2/3 volunteer, who share responsibility for approximately 100-170 nests covering an area from Johnson Beach to Navarre. They share 28 different patrols in four different regions during nesting season and throughout that time, The Turtle People log nest data, take measurements, and try to spread awareness to people living in close proximity to the nests. Residents and visitors who have gulf front properties are asked in a number of different and creative ways to keep their lights off and to keep their blinds closed at night during nesting season. They are told not to use flashlights when they’re walking on the beach after sundown. Beach-goers are asked not to leave deep holes or furniture in the sand overnight and to knock down their sandcastles. Naturally, and most importantly, people are urged to stay away from the perimeter of the nests.
Most people are awesome, but it never hurts to continue to spread awareness.
I found out that there are some factors that can dramatically affect the babies’ success in getting out of their nest. For one, if a mama turtle lays her eggs too close to the water’s edge, a high tide can drown them all. Not only that, but if the sand stays too wet because of heavy rainfall, the babies may hatch just fine but will have a really hard time digging themselves out through the waterlogged sand. Like I said, the mama for nest #6251 picked a great spot!
And about digging out… the little dudes are buried about a foot and a half down so when they hatch they have to claw their way all the way to the top! This takes a day or two and gets a whole lot easier when they’re all helping out at the same time. In other words, it would stink to be the brother who hatched first and started crawling out all by himself. (Cue: Hey Bros! Wake up already!!!)
Like I said, this past Thursday, I topped that same boardwalk again and eyed the nesting area for what felt like the hundredth time. This time however, there was a woman’s body lying next to it and again, I thought to myself, “crime scene.” Or “drunken tourist.” I approached the lady quietly but her head popped up when I was still about five feet away. I said, “Are you okay?” and she said, “Oh I’m fine. I’m listening. And I heard you coming. You didn’t scare me.”
The scrunch-scrunch of the sand as I was walking toward her apparently mimics the sound the babies make when they’ve hatched and are crawling up into the world. This woman was listening for movement, and The Turtle People are so good at what they do that she can tell by the low or high level of scratching how close the nest is to take-off. She didn’t even get up while we talked; she did let me ask her a few questions. I was absolutely mesmerized watching her.
“It won’t be today. Probably tomorrow.”
She said this with deep conviction and undeniable authority. I was a little starstruck, I’m not gonna lie.
She pointed out a concave area in the ground, indicative of a displacement in the sand. There was a screen lying nearby that she used to cover the nest, to trap the babies inside in the event that they did hatch that night. This was for their safety, I learned. See, once they all crawl up and and out, they scatter in all directions (much like un-corralled babies of any species do) and The Turtle People want to make sure they have the greatest chance of success so they keep them together until they’re all ready to make a break for freedom, all at the same time. I can assure you it won’t ever go unnoticed when this happens. The Turtle People babysit their nests until it’s GO-time! I’m not kidding. They lay down on the ground and just wait for them! Can you imagine? So when the little dudes start popping through the surface, there is somebody already there, smiling and waiting, eager to count them all and collect other important information. I didn’t even go to this much trouble when I had my own human baby. (I had wine and Mexican food and went to bed early.)
The big night came this past Thursday around 10 pm, after about 60 days of incubation. I was already in bed, of course, so I didn’t actually witness the big birth, and that’s perfectly ok. I am thrilled just knowing The Turtle People were out there handling it for the rest of us. Ninety-seven brothers and sisters came up, and when the screen was taken off, the babies took off in every possible direction as predicted, including north towards the condos who had their stupid lights on. All of this was monitored and logged and ‘disorientation’ data was also collected before all the little loggerheads were pointed in the right direction and escorted out to sea by their great protectors.
To my knowledge, all the little groms from Nest #6251 made it all the way to the Gulf that night.
…even the ones who headed straight to Portofino. Once they’re in the water, as you can imagine, there are other dangers. Predator fish come to mind, and if I were a barracuda, I would probably think sea turtle babies were delicious. I hate to imagine it, but it’s the Circle of Life I suppose and best guesses put the overall success rate at about 1% who live to adulthood. That they make it to the water at all is a miracle in itself. We have The Turtle People to thank for that, I can promise you.
The best part? Sea turtles return to the place they were born to lay their own eggs. How magical.
A huge and humble thanks to the National Park Service (part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore), Escambia County, the Jackson Guard , Navarre Beach and SO MANY OTHERS for their tireless conservation efforts. The Turtle People love spreading knowledge and awareness, so just ask them if you have questions!
Watching this nest and speaking to these terrific, selfless people has been the most remarkable part of my summer. What a beautiful and miraculous world we live in!