Topsail Turtles: Tracks in the Sand
Every summer, hundreds of baby sea turtles hatch on Topsail Island and make their way to the ocean by the light of the moon. They face many threats: ghost crabs prey on them; competing light from houses, hotels, and other buildings that line the beach misdirect them, and sharks and other predators await them in the vast ocean. But a few survive until adulthood, and every year for millions of years, female turtles have returned to their natal beaches to nest, and start the cycle again.
The Museum’s Head of Outreach, Jerry Reynolds, leads a trip to the beach each August, giving participants the rare chance to witness a hatching. Loggerhead sea turtles are the primary species to nest on Topsail, and their hatchlings usually emerge at night, in the relative safety of darkness. Some years, participants have huddled on the beach in the cold and rain for hours, “nest-sitting” a nest that didn’t hatch that night. Some years, they arrived at a nest only to find that it had already hatched. But some years, they get lucky.
August 14, 2016
The first night of our trip I got to see 20 baby loggerhead sea turtles make their way down to the ocean.
First, the group attended a loggerhead nest analysis at the other end of the island. A nest analysis is performed three days after the nest hatches, and includes collection and counting of eggs and eggshell fragments, any babies that didn’t make it, and any surviving hatchlings that didn’t make it out of the nest. They recovered a lot of eggshell fragments and a number of unhatched eggs, but all of the ones that did hatch made it out of the nest.
As soon as the analysis was done we drove to the north end of the island, where our assigned loggerhead nest awaited. We all set up our beach chairs and settled in for what we knew could be a long night. But we didn’t have very long to wait before we heard the stage-whispered exclamation from the person nearest the nest: the first hatchling had emerged and was headed towards the water!
Volunteers from the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol build sand “runways” for the hatchlings of each nest, mostly so the many people who turn up to watch the hatchings don’t accidentally step on the turtles. However, because 1) the runways are built ahead of time, 2) there’s no way to predict quite when a nest will hatch, and 3) the moon moves, the direction of a runway may not match the direction of the moon when the turtles hatch. And unfortunately, our runway wasn’t lined up with the moon.
We helped keep the parade of baby turtles on the runway when they strayed in the direction of the moon, using our arms to block them from coming over the top of our side of the ramp. The last turtle tried so hard to go toward the moon that it almost climbed over my arm, turned around & started going the wrong way, and then finally back to scrabble against my arm. One of the volunteers came over and set the little creature back in the center of the runway, and off it went, down toward the next person and out of my sight toward the ocean. They say maybe one hatchling in a thousand makes it to the Sargasso Sea. That little one tried so hard, I really hope it makes it.
Elated, we moved to a new nest that our Turtle Patrol contact thought was likely to hatch soon. The new nest had the tell-tale depression at the top that indicated movement below; underneath the sand, the turtles were coming out of their eggs. But despite waiting and watching until about 3:30am, no turtles emerged.
August 15, 2016
Today we toured the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. After a brief orientation, we got a look at the medical and husbandry areas, met a tiny loggerhead hatchling, and quietly filed by as a newly rescued turtle received treatment for its injuries.
We toured the “Sea Turtle Bay,” the huge area where most of the turtles are housed in large tanks while being rehabilitated. Most of the turtles are loggerheads, but there were a handful of green sea turtles and just one of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a blind permanent resident of the hospital named “Lennie.”
Finally, the Topsail Island Turtle Project’s founder, Jean Beasley, kindly took the time to speak to the group, and gave an impassioned plea for conservation.
Tonight we were incredibly lucky to watch a nest analysis of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, a species that normally only nests at one location in Mexico, and sometimes in Texas. The analysis was attended by none other than Jean Beasley!
There were several eggs from the nest that didn’t hatch, and a few hatchlings that didn’t survive, but there was one hatchling in this nest that was recovered alive.
Typically, if a hatchling looks viable, it will be released at sunset. I’m not sure what happened with that hatchling, but we were able to take some photos of the nest analysis, including the baby. The really good news is that they thought 75 hatchlings had made it out of the nest, and hopefully, to the ocean.
After the nest analysis we drove 20 miles north to the other end of the island to sit with the same nest we had stayed with last night. This time, we’d barely parked the vans on the side of the road when Jerry got a text from the nest coordinator telling him that the hatchlings had their noses up, poking through the sand hole at the top of the nest. We scrambled with what we could instantly grab and jogged to the nest site. Some of the hatchlings were already in the ocean, and a line of baby turtles was trundling down the turtle “highway.” We watched until all of the babies were safely to the water — a magical sight.
Because of the prohibition on any kind of artificial lights while the hatchlings are on the beach, photos can only be taken during a hatching with an infrared camera, which nobody on this trip had, but we did get some photos of the turtle tracks.
We went back to the vans and moved a mile or so north to another nest that our contact thought might hatch. We set up our beach chairs by the runway and were settling in for the night when the rumor circulated that an adult female had come ashore to lay her eggs, but had possibly been spooked by something and went back in the ocean. Often if this happens, the mother sea turtle will come ashore and try again somewhere close by.
It wasn’t long before we heard the news — the turtle had indeed come ashore only a little distance to the north! We ran ahead to find her. The first thing I saw was a dark shape against the dune, but fellow trip participant Dan Harvey trained his birding scope on her, and we watched from afar as she started to lay her clutch. A few minutes later, Jerry returned from a run to the van with his night scope, which made the scene appear as if illuminated by bright green light.
The mother turtle laid her eggs quickly, and the group took turns watching through the scopes as she covered them up with her flippers. Nesting often takes two or three hours, but before we knew it, she was headed back down to the surf. We followed her at a distance, and came gradually closer to where we could see her. She was enormous — apparently an older, more experienced mother turtle. The nest coordinator shone a red light on her, checking for tags. She didn’t have any, but the light was enough for a couple people to take photos, and Curator of the Museum’s Living Conservatory, Andy Kauffman, got a short video of the turtle making her way through the waves to deeper water. Although rough and indistinct, the photos and video commemorate the coda of an extraordinary trip.
I have been trying to go on the Topsail Turtle Trip for almost a decade, but something always prevented me from going. This year I finally got to go, and it was more than worth the wait. We couldn’t have been luckier — it was epic.