I’m on my back, my head propped up on a worn piece of driftwood. I occasionally slap at mosquitoes nervy enough to land in range of my trusty fly swatter, my hand. The waves are calm and barely put up a fight to struggle up the shore before they wash away. Oil rigs light up the horizon indicating what a passer-by might mistake as a small city. They are no comparison, though, to the night sky. So many all above me. Admirably, they demand my unbroken attention without ever saying a thing.
Ahh, but I hop up. I must check the nest or the buggers will be out and in the ocean before we even know it. I attempt to brush off the sand for a bit before I realize it’s a futile pursuit and put on my uber fashionable, red-light, turtle-safe head lamp. I scan the trench we’ve dug looking for escapees, filling in holes and scaring off crabs as I traipse up the dune. I checked ten minutes ago, there is not going to be….op, there it is, poking its head out of the sand. He climbs out and there’s another behind him. And another. And the train continues. I call Ashley, “WE’VE GOT TURTLES,” and she scrambles up. We ooh and ahh. I keep my light on them and make sure they are heading in the right direction. Which they aren’t. One turns around and heads the opposite direction. One climbs up the side of the trench before he slips down on his back and flails around until I reach down with my finger and flip him back over with a soft reprimand. One seemingly takes a nap. And one is firing on all flippers straight for the sea before her. I assume she was a female. Truthfully, sex is temperature dependent so the majority are probably all males, but never ye mind, because I know with absolute certainty that hatchling was a mini-me.
Eventually, they all crawl their way to the shore, where the sand gets wet but just above the water’s reach. I like to be there for this moment so I can see that first reaction when the water rushes up under them and gets in their nose and covers their flippers. What must that be like? Do they know it’s home? They pause. Then miraculously, many make a mad break straight for the ocean! They get tumbled around for a minute before the waves take them away, out, towards the middle of the ocean. At this point, those of us land-goers fist pump. We’re empty nest-ers now, literally.
With some variation, the above story is what I spent my last two weeks doing. I’m one lucky duck, right? Right. I feel extremely privileged to have had those experiences. Spent with some of the best people, too. I hope I remember those nights for a long, long time. Aside from the task of saving baby sea turtles (I’m being facetious here), we also set some minnow traps with the help of Becky, a biologist from North MS and lovely person overall, and her interns. We were pleasantly surprised the next day to find a gulf salt marsh snake and a banded water snake. We were visited by a slew of interns from Mississippi Sandhill Crane too. It was all fun and games until we got finagled into helping with a unit for fire monitoring. All brush and thorns. I had to channel my inner-Tarzan to get over, around and through some of that jungle.
Gulf Salt Marsh Snake
Another incredibly awesome thing I got to do was excavate nests A-1 and A-2. After three days of the initial hatch we dig up the nest to get hatch success data. Hopefully, you find mainly empty shells though it’s likely you will get 8-10+ that didn’t hatch because of infertility, depredation, or developmental problems to name a few of the most probable reasons. You count them all, obviously, then you examine the unhatched eggs. Sometime you open it up and there is a turtle, curled around its yolk sac that for whatever reason, didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s like sifting through fried eggs, looking for eye spots or a tiny little embryo. After you’re done, you throw it all back in the turtle nest turned grave and let nature do its thing. Then you stand up, and think to yourself, ‘I can never eat eggs again.’ That was my experience when excavating A-1. A-2 held more surprises.
Like four baby hatchling surprises.
The fabulous four.
Our primary goal is to interrupt the natural process for all baby sea turtles as little as possible, if at all. However, the hatchling’s energy reserves come from the yolk sac, the last of which they soak up, just before pipping the egg. This fuels them to climb out of a foot deep hole, into the ocean and traverse the many miles to reach the closest current in the gulf which they hopefully ride until large enough to not be such an easy snack for fish or birds. If these turtles have been lolli-gagging around in the bottom of that nest for three days, chances are they won’t have the energy to make it to the current. So we put them in a bucket, carry them to the shore, and release them there. Why not just put them all in a bucket and carry them to the water when they first hatch then? Let’s revert back to my previous statement that we like to keep things as natural as possible. It’s pretty well accepted that female turtles return to the same beach to nest that they were hatched on, however, science has yet to definitively answer how they know where to return to. Magnetic compass? Maybe. Some believe that it is the initial crawl to the ocean that allows them to orient themselves and do whatever they do that makes them return. There is so much they don’t know, and this is an endangered species, so we try to protect and conserve while taking stringent precautions to not unknowingly err and disrupt these turtles that have survived for so long without us.
Anyways, so that is what we did. This was during the day, when they usually hatch at night, so we could see what we’d been missing. They get caught in the tide and wash up and down a few times, that’s all old news, but then…. then they get their bearings. They dip this way, they dip that way and suddenly there is this whole portrait before you of ‘I hatched a half hour ago and yet, somehow I am swimming like it’s the most natural thing in the world right now.’ And just like that, they take off. You sigh, they’re gone, but out of the corner of your eye a tiny head pops above water for a breath of air before going back under. Twenty yards later, there it is again, another breath. Another twenty yards, another breath. That was THE best moment of my entire internship. I can’t pin down precisely why. Frankly, they’re such little guys you can’t help but be concerned for them. You know that they don’t stand a chance. But to see those few poking their heads up as they got farther and farther away, I was able to garner more and more hope. A picture’s worth a thousand words? That picture would have been worth my last twelve weeks of blogging.
My internship ended with one great finale. Jerry had been dying to put the boat through it’s paces. What better way than a staff luncheon at LuLu’s? There is none! A boat ride on the intercoastal, a mahi sandwich, a lovely card and going away present, and one all inclusive staff picture later, it finally dawned on me that my internship was over. Dawned is an understatement, it was more like being hit with a bag of bricks. Firstly, I was sad to be leaving such wonderful people. Despite working for them, I think I gained more than they ever got from me. I can’t count the times they went out of their way to answer my questions, provide opportunities or make me feel a part of the office. More so than that, being able to laugh and joke around. It doesn’t happen like that everywhere. You don’t get the chance to work with such fun people all the time. It was bittersweet leaving my fellow interns as well. Ashley requested a whole paragraph in her honor, but I’ll just say this: she breaks into tears if you play “A Whole New World” from the Aladdin soundtrack and she’s single, gentlemen. And thanks to Adam, I now know what Wisconsians love, and that is milk. I am grateful for this summer for many other reasons too though. For the affirmation it’s given me in knowing this is absolutely what I love and what I want to do. For teaching me to question all things around me. For allowing me to see the application of what I learn in school in the field and consequently, the motivation to truly understand that content. For a deeper appreciation of the common, and the ability to see it as the extraordinary. And for a million other things, that I’d rather keep to myself because they wouldn’t mean as much to you. That’s the great thing about nature after all, you don’t have to hear it from me, you can walk outside and see it yourself.
You’re lookin at the best.
This will be my last post, Thanks for reading, yall.