As many of you know, I’m one of the volunteers with the Tybee Marine Science Center’s Sea Turtle Project. This involves dawn patrol on the beach checking for turtle crawls in nesting season (May-August), nest sitting during the hatch windows, and being around for crowd control and assistance during hatches (until October).
Last night, I was headed down to the beach at 7:45 for a planned release of some loggerhead babies that had hatched in the morning and were taken off the beach for safety. Most of them hatch at night, when there’s less chance of immediate predation (seagulls etc) or being stepped on by a beach swimmer. When I arrived at the nest, one little guy (well, probably a girl, given our high temperatures this summer — sand temperature is a determiner of sex) that had still been in the nest throughout the day had poked its head out, and after about 40 minutes had saved up enough energy to emerge fully and begin its journey to the ocean and eventually the (Sargasso) Sea. It took about 15 minutes once the first flipper was out, and since it was still light out, I was able to catch it all on my iPhone.
The reason it was unusual to be able to film this trek is that when they hatch at night, we don’t allow lights on the beach except for red filtered or infrared light, because the turtles use the reflected light off the ocean as a guide and flashlights or other artificial lighting confuses them and they go toward the lights instead of the ocean. We don’t pick them up and carry them to the water because the crawl across the beach is an important strength-builder — they’re going to be swimming for 24 hours straight once they hit the water! Also, not enough is known about how their brains imprint on their natal sand, but sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs, so it’s important to let them do their thing.
About 1 in 1,000 babies like this one will survive, though other estimates say that’s just the first year and it’s more like 1 in 4,000 or up to 10,000 for reaching adulthood (source numbers vary, and remember that sea turtles live a long time when they do make it). Each nest contains around 100 eggs, and we have 23 nests on Tybee this year. Will this one be one of the ones that make it? Odds aren’t good, but I’m always hopeful.
What can you do to help? Support conservation groups. Stop using disposable plastic (to-go cups, straws, saran wrap, etc). It mostly ends up in the ocean — it looks like jellyfish (a main turtle food) in the water and turtles eat it, which can kill them.
For more information about the sea turtle program, please visit the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.