“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Alabama Sea Turtle Nesting

In the dim twilight on a deserted stretch of coastline on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a lonely figure kneels and gently touches a stethoscope to the warm sand. With the boom of the crashing surf in the background, Debi Gholson, a volunteer with the Alabama Share the Beach program, strains to hear the telltale scratching of tiny sea turtles. She is listening to a loggerhead sea turtle nest, hoping to hear live hatchlings two feet underground breaking out of their shells and digging toward the surface.

“I hear movement!” she says. Tonight could be the night to witness the remarkable sight of dozens of energetic baby turtles frantically erupting from the sand and madly sprinting to the protective waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This particular nest was laid 56 days ago by a female loggerhead turtle, a huge and increasingly rare marine turtle that plies the waters of the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Loggerheads weigh 150-400 pounds and measure 30-45 inches along the carapace, or back shell. They spend practically their entire lives in the ocean. Every summer the females emerge from the sea to nest. They plod across the beach, quickly dig a two-foot deep cavity with their hind flippers, and deposit 100 to 150 golf-ball-sized eggs, which they gently cover with sand. They then return to the ocean, never to see the results of their efforts, leaving distinctive crawl marks as the only sign of their presence.

If the sun warms the eggs to the right temperature, storms don't wash the nest away, coyotes or other predators don't dig up the eggs, and a dozen other conditions are just right, about two months later the eggs hatch and dozens of baby turtles miraculously bubble out of the sand and dash across the beach, dodging hungry sea gulls and ghost crabs, before reaching the relative safety of the ocean. This frantic and fragile scene is repeated dozens of times every summer on Alabama’s beaches. Fort Morgan is a particularly valuable turtle nesting area; as of the end of July, forty nests have been discovered on the peninsula, a very productive year.

The discoveries are made by a dedicated corps of volunteers and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge employees who patrol the beaches daily during the May through August nesting season. They search for evidence of nesting and then monitor and protect the nests until they successfully hatch.

One of these nests is the one we are standing over tonight. Fifteen minutes after Debi hears the subterranean scratching, we see the sand move and a black pinky-finger sized head pops out of the sand. The first baby turtle is struggling to the surface. A tiny flipper appears, then another and a cookie-sized turtle emerges and sprints toward the surf. Suddenly the sand comes alive with dozens of baby turtles emerging from the nest. This frenzy of hatching is called the “boil” and within minutes, more than sixty baby loggerheads scramble out of the sand.

What follows is both wondrous and comedic as a handful of volunteers scramble around in the dark trying to shepherd dozens of confused and speedy critters toward the Gulf of Mexico. Evolution has conditioned the hatchlings to head toward light—which for eons was moonlight reflecting off the surf. But today streetlights and lighting from condos and beach houses lures them inland, away from the surf. The volunteers have to continuously turn the babies toward the water and herd them away from the dunes. A safe distance away, hordes of ghost crabs watch our progress, waiting for an opportunity to dart in and snatch one of these tasty morsels. If we weren’t here, there would be a deadly feast on this beach. After more than three hours of babysitting and coaxing, the last hatchling finally wades into the surf and swims into the darkness. Sixty nine eggs hatched, all of them made it safely to the water.

All of this effort is an attempt to halt the decline of sea turtles. Six species of sea turtles are found in U.S. waters and all of them are threatened or endangered. Entanglement in fishing nets, pollution and litter (turtles ingest and choke on plastic bags, balloons, and other floating debris that resembles jellyfish, their favorite food) cause numerous turtle deaths each year. Development of beachfront habitat decreases nesting success and beachfront lighting disorients hatchlings.

Adult turtles return to their birth beach to nest so one day one of these creatures will lumber back onto this beach to lay the seed for yet another generation. The dedicated work of the volunteers and professionals patrolling Alabama’s beaches bring hope that we can continue to witness the return of sea turtles to Alabama beaches for decades to come.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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