This summer we traveled to the Gulf of Mexico to spend a week with my family. One of the coolest things we noticed there along the beach was an area blocked off to indicate that sea turtles had nested. It was just a patch of sand surrounded by a few stakes and caution tape with a little sign that let us know it was a protected sea turtle area. We never saw anything happen, but just knowing a sea turtle had come out of the ocean where we were playing and chosen that beach to lay her eggs, well, it made me feel a little closer to nature. Fast forward a couple weeks, and we headed out to the East Coast to Oak Island, NC for our small family vacation. (I know there is irony in calling a family of 7 doing anything “small” but it wasn’t 20+ like the family reunion trips, so small family it is.)
When we first got down to the beach we noticed an area marked off for turtles right by us, and another one a few yards up the beach. On day two we noticed that someone had built up little sand walls and a made path from the nest to the water. Since we didn’t really know anything about turtle nesting Nick and I assumed some beach goers had just done this on a whim. (We should have asked our kids who, turns out, have been paying attention when we watch Blue Planet!)
Our last day on the beach we decided to go to church early in the morning and, after grabbing lunch in town, pack up a dinner and spend the whole afternoon and evening by the water. Because we were there a little later in the day we saw some Turtle Volunteers in matching teal t-shirts place their beach chairs up by the nest and begin smoothing out the “runway” they had built to the sea. We couldn’t just pretend nothing was happening. We immediately started asking questions. It turns out that turtle eggs incubate for around 53 days before hatching. And at day 50 volunteers, or “Nest Parents” stay by the nest to observe and aid their trek to the open ocean. We were on day 53!! This seemed like a situation that was too good to be true, and they weren’t seeing any activity at the nest, but we still thought it was cool to learn so much about the turtles along our shore.
As evening came, and Nick and the kids continued to play in the water despite my best attempts to warn them about shark feeding time (which Nick reasoned would be earlier on Oak Island because of the timing of high tide…and I looked it up…and he was right…so I tried to relax) we settled in to wait for sunset and do a little ghost crab hunting. Now at this point I will tell you that I HATE ghost crab hunting. It is dark. We are barefoot. And there are tiny, bug-like creatures scurrying everywhere. If you have a flashlight you can see them…if not? They are likely scurrying over your feet. No thank you! So when Nick suggested taking a walk I was more interested in checking out the beach than looking for tiny creatures. At this point we noticed a big crowd down the beach. One of my kids suggested that it might be a wedding. But we continued walking and then a Nest Parent who had answered so many of our earlier turtle questions casually said “Oh, yes, that’s probably a hatching.” WHAT!? Turtles were hatching??
We picked up our pace, but we were about a half a mile down from the crowd and as we got closer it was dispersing. I figured it was a false alarm, but then the crowd started to reform a couple houses down. ANOTHER NEST WAS HATCHING!
Now my kids, especially the oldest and youngest, are not shy. They aren’t held back by worry about what others will think of their curiosity. So by the time I made it to the spot on the beach where they were gathered, my kids were standing right next to the nest and on a first name basis with the Nest Parents. The hatching had happened and the nest was beginning to “boil” – the process where the tiny turtles begin to dig their way up from the nest and start bubbling out of the top. This feels like a safe place to admit that tiny baby loggerhead turtles coming up out of the ground resemble a little pile of dog poo. It was hard to identity them as turtles until a few minutes later when we started seeing flippers. The Nest Mom told us that it was just a matter of minutes now before they would begin their very quick journey out to sea.
Since the sun had set, the volunteers explained that turtles orient themselves to the ocean by watching the moonlight reflecting on the water and the whites of the wave caps. Any light up by the beach would disorient the babies. The volunteers had red flashlights they could shine briefly, because white light is really what bothers the turtles. Our volunteer turned to the group of families lined up to watch this miracle of nature and said “Alright, from this point on there are no pictures, and in fact your phone can’t make any light, including the screen, so please put them away.” And a teenager in the front row took a flash picture. I had teacher flashbacks to those moments when you literally question if you were heard because the disregarding of instruction is so blatant. (And for the 100th time I reflected on how much I love and respect teachers. Thank you for putting up with our children and all the many ways they come into the classroom and all of the varying levels of behavior and attitude. You are heroes!)
The babies started going and volunteers along the side started counting them with what I think of as “pitch-counters” #LittleLeagueMomProblems. It was all happening so fast, and the night was so dark that we were just seeing little dark blobs scuttle down the white sand. Occasionally a turtle would get turned around (because seriously, people in the crowd could not resist picking up their phones for 5 minutes) but before we knew it, the magic was over. The turtles were at sea. We learned that the previous record for nests along Oak Island was 115 and this summer saw 152 nests laid. We also learned that each nest carries between 75-150 eggs. And that only about 1 in 1000 turtles survives to adulthood!! It was so cool to think we witnessed this beautiful moment in nature, and in a time where we hear so much about how humans are destroying habitats, it was beautiful to see volunteers spending their summer evenings helping these babies get to sea without being harmed by unwise people along the beach.
The next day, as we all proclaimed the turtle hatching the coolest thing we had ever seen and discussed the previous day’s new information, Nick told our daughter Sophia that the volunteer had discussed a “sea” out in the Atlantic that was contained not by land but by ocean currents where the turtles go after being hatched. He tried to describe it but couldn’t remember the name. Sophia, who had been down by the water and missed the volunteer’s description, piped up “Oh! You mean the Sargasso Sea?” and continued on with new information about sea turtles and the Sargasso. And we confirmed that perhaps just asking the kids would be more efficient than trying to Google things in the future.
As we drove back home that morning, and we did what we always do on the drive from a vacation (start planning the next vacation) I told Nick that I would be happy retiring out on Oak Island. And I even have my next profession waiting for me: Turtle Nest Mom! I mean, I take care of 5 kids every day…certainly I could get a few hundred turtles to travel 20 yards to the ocean!
*I have no more pictures from the turtles as they began to go down the runway. Because I listened when the lady told us to put our phones away. I will remember it forever…even without a picture.