Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nesting Action in Topsail

Did you know that the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital got its start in nest protection? It's true! Many years before the Beasley family started rehabilitating turtles, they were out on the beach protecting nests from predators and poachers. This summer, the interns have been keeping the tradition alive by being active in the nesting portion of the Topsail Sea Turtle Project.

Nesting season seems to have come into full swing in the past couple weeks. So far, I've seen two nesting females, three nests, and got to assist relocating two nests. The most recent time that the interns got out to see a nesting female was the most profound to me, and I think that's because of what we all went through that day long before the loggerhead came out on the beach.

Monday, June 25th, was hands-down the most emotionally difficult day we've had at the hospital this summer. We had four new turtles come in in less than twenty-four hours, all with horrendous injuries. Two of them did not make it despite our best efforts and prayers. I was beside myself with grief when I left the hospital at the end of the day. I don't want to delve too far into this topic right now, because I plan to dedicate a future blog to it. I think it's important to mention this, though, because it's hard to understand how this experience affected me without that background.

Anyway, that night, I'd finally decided that it was time to settle in and get some sleep when we got the call at about 9:30. We hear, "TURTLE ON THE BEACH!" and there's a minute or two of complete pandemonium as people rush about the house changing clothes, putting on shoes, and running out the door to pile into the car.

Once we finally arrived on the beach and all sat in the sand to watch the female as she covered her eggs, I felt a huge sense of peace that I had been longing for all day. Here we had a healthy turtle out on the beach laying her eggs, doing exactly as she's supposed to do. She gives her babies the gift of life, and leaves them to fend for themselves, never to see them again - as it has happened for thousands of years. This is why we go through the hard times - in hopes that more turtles are out there to breed and keep the species going.

One of my favorite memories of the summer so far is when our beach coordinator gave us permission to approach the female from behind and give her a pat on the back and tell her "good job" as she headed out to the ocean. Just like, having your hand on a wild animal, and then watching her jump into a wave and continue on, forgetting you almost as soon as that water carries her out of your grasp - it makes you feel so small.

 Unfortunately, she laid her nest right in front of a huge condominium, which meant that if the babies hatched there, they could easily go the wrong way, attracted by the lights instead of heading out to the ocean. This meant that we had to relocate the nest to a more peaceful place.

The two times I've helped relocate nests have followed a pretty standard order. The first part is trickier than you might think - find the egg chamber. Turtles work hard to camouflage that chamber as best they can, so it can take quite some digging to find the nest. Here's some photos from my second relocation - the first happened at night, so there are no pictures from that experience.
When moving eggs, it's always very important to try to keep their orientation intact, because if you rotate them you can harm the egg's chances of developing properly.

At this point, we'd uncovered the eggs, and started to transfer them into the bucket to move them.

Once all the eggs are out, the beach coordinators have us take a bunch of sand from the bottom of the nest. When the female is done digging the hole for the eggs, but before she starts actually dropping the eggs into the nest, she excretes a lot of mucus, which is absorbed the the sand in the bottom of the nest. We take the sand at the bottom of the original nest and place it at the bottom of the new nest, to me, this has both scientific and sentimental properties. It's possible that the mucus contains elements that are biologically important to the development of the eggs. However, I think of it this way - this egg chamber, these excretions are all this mother can ever give to her babies. Intervening in sea turtle nests is not taken lightly by the coordinators, but it is done when they feel that we can give the babies a better chance for survival by moving them to a more suitable location. Moving the mucus-saturated sand is a small way in which we can take mama's gift and sacrifice with the eggs to the new nest.

You might be wondering how we come across nests when we aren't actually there to watch the female lay her eggs. Well, the morning of my second relocation, I got a few opportunities to see turtle tracks by checking out some false crawls.

Not all false crawl turtle tracks make the typical "U" shape. This mama wandered all over trying to find a suitable place for her nest.

 I guess what I've most learned from watching the females nest is that life goes on. It seems cheesy - but it was a salve on my heart to think that though we lost 2 turtles that day, relocating the nest that was in an improper location may have given 130+ turtle hatchlings a chance to live. It doesn't negate the loss or omit it, but it reminds us that that loss is not the end, and it's not simply a failure, it is only one part of what we do, and we still have opportunities all around us to make a difference for the future of these animals. What we did that day, and what we do each time we experience such a tragedy, as our director Jean tells us, is grieve for those that can't continue on in their struggle, but pick ourselves up and care for those that can.

Back home, my friends and I had this tradition of making a wish at 11:11. That night, after seeing off the nesting female as she took off back out into the black ocean, I looked down at my phone and it was 11:11, but I'd already gotten my wish.

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