Cape Hatteras is a popular sea turtle nesting site. According to the Park Service, there were over 200 sea turtle nests in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (from Bodie Island all the way to Ocracoke Island). A few of them were right over the dune from my house. The Park Service ropes off the nests to prevent people from driving over them or stepping on them. Some of the species that nest here are endangered, so they want to make sure that every single nest has the best possible opportunity to hatch.
Last Tuesday night I was finishing up a kayak tour when I got a text from my husband saying that the nest closest to our house was starting to “boil” (the term for all the baby turtles coming up out of the sand), and for me to come to the beach as fast as I could. I got there in time to see the show!
The nest is blocked off, so we couldn’t see them coming up out of the sand, but we got to watch as they scrambled down toward the water. We weren’t allowed to have any lights at all. The Park Service volunteers had special red lights, but we couldn’t have our cell phones out or flashlights or anything of the sort. One of the coolest things about turtles is that they nest on the same beach they were born on (usually about 30 years later). How the heck do they find their way back after all that time? It has something to do with moonlight and magnetism, although scientists don’t understand it exactly (like most things, by the way). They know that a lot of ambient light near the beach screws up the turtle’s ability to see the moon and find the water, so if you vacation in a nesting hotspot, you’ll see requests to turn down your lights at night or use black out curtains. During the journey from the nest to the beach, something extraordinary happens in the turtle’s brain where it orients itself. That’s what one day will allow it to end up back on the beach of its birth to lay its own nest.
A group of maybe 20 people, my neighbors and some random tourists who happened to be out on the beach, gathered to watch the turtles. It was a clear night and the stars were out. We had a fabulous view of the Milky Way right above our heads. From the red lights of the volunteers we could see those tiny turtles heading as fast as they could toward the water. During that relatively short journey, baby turtles can be preyed upon by ghost crabs and seagulls, so the volunteers were there to usher them safely to the ocean. The volunteers counted 60 babies before they lost count.
It was low tide, so the volunteers scooped up the turtles into a bucket and carried them the rest of the way to the water. Before they took them to the water though, they brought the bucket over and let us have a look. The turtles were smaller than I imagined, maybe the size of a 50 cent piece. They were all climbing all over each other in the bucket, eager to get on with things.
I have to say that watching those little guys (or gals) head for the ocean with such determination was one of the most sacred things I’ve ever witnessed. Picture the night sky, the Milky Way splashed over our heads like a Pollock painting, the wind blowing off the beach, the only sound the waves tumbling onto the shore, and these tiny turtles like heat seeking missiles fixated on the path to the ocean. This will be the first of many dangerous treks. Once they hit the water, they swim halfway across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea, a massive, floating blob of sea grass, where they use the grass for cover and try to grow up before they get eaten by one of their many predators.
When humans were fumbling with fire in damp caves, turtles were doing this exact thing. For thousands and thousands and thousands of years, turtles have nested, scrambled across the sand, swam across the ocean, grown up, then swam back across the ocean, somehow finding the exact beach where they were born, to dig a nest and start the whole process over again. I had the feeling that I was witnessing something primal and ancient, something that pre-dated language, civilization and religion, the first kind of ritual, and maybe the most sacred- nature doing what nature does.
A few days later, we went and watched the Park Service excavate the nest. They count the eggshells to see how many hatched and open up the intact eggs to see how developed they were or if they were unfertilized. Our nest had 120 eggs (if I remember correctly), 95 hatched, and the rest were mostly unfertilized, so they never would have developed anyway. It was a very cool thing for my family to get to see.