Sunday, August 26, 2012

An amazing night- Turtle Walk part II

            It looked like a hurricane might be headed our way…. so what did we do?  We jumped in our car and headed right towards it, to my parent’s house on a little barrier island that is prone to flooding, vulnerable to high winds, and right in what looked like the path of the storm.    Normally, we are not so irresponsible or crazy but it had been about 55 days since our “turtle walk” back in June and “our” baby turtles were due to hatch!  

All day Friday, we had watched the storm’s progress.  We watched the projected track and we calculated our window of opportunity.  Then, we decided that as long as we could be back home by Sunday afternoon, it was safe enough to go see if we could witness the hatching of the turtle eggs we had so carefully helped mark and protect weeks ago.

My mom contacted her friends from the turtle watch patrol and they informed us that though hatchings were never guaranteed, they would be “evacuating a nest” Saturday evening and we were welcome to come along to watch the process.   I could not help but think the word “evacuate” was a little ironic considering the oncoming threat of “Isaac”.  “Evacuating” a turtle nest is not like evacuating the island for a hurricane though, thank goodness.  No long lines of traffic, no hurrying to get away from danger, no whipping winds or torrential rain squalls.  

Just some rubber gloves and a lot of digging.  

When sea turtle nests are newly discovered (from the tracks the mama turtles leave on the sand), in the beginning of nesting season, they are verified and then marked and dated.  That is what we witnessed back in June.  

Towards the end of the season, after the baby hatchlings have left the nest (which the turtle experts can tell from the tracks the babies leave on the sand) the sticks and caution tape are taken down and then the remains of the nest are examined and the leftover egg shells counted for official government record keeping. 

The nest to be evacuated did not turn out to be one of the nests we had helped mark but we were still excited to be part of the process, especially when we heard there was a chance that a left-behind hatchling or two might be found in the nest.   So Saturday evening, we watched with baited breath as a nest was dug up and little mounds of cracked, abandoned egg shells piled up.  In the end, there were a few un-hatched eggs and ninety hatched eggs but no baby turtles still lingering behind.

“There is a nest just a few blocks away that we think is due to hatch this evening,” the turtle walkers told us.  They then shared with us that they had turtle walking friends that once thought a hatching was eminent and ended up sitting by a nest for 6 evenings straight only to have it finally hatch the seventh night, after they had given up.  They told us they themselves had sat at nests for hours on end a few times- as late as 2 a.m. they said, to see the babies finally emerge and head to the sea.  ‘We can’t guarantee anything but it does look like this nest is ready,” they informed us.

We figured it was worth coming back after dark to see.  

At nine p.m. we approached the nest and found the turtle walkers there watching quietly as one tiny loggerhead baby stuck his head up through the sand.   “It may take a while, but when they are all ready the baby turtles will all come out together and head to the water.  Wait and see,” they told us.   We did not have to wait long.  Within minutes, a few more little heads wiggled free of the sand and then all of the sudden, just as they promised us, the nest started to shake and baby turtles climbed out, scrambling quite quickly towards the Gulf.  About 12 hatchlings emerged and we followed them, watching closely to make sure they arrived safely at their destination about 50 feet away.  

Then we returned to the nest to wait for more.  But the sand was quiet.  The turtle walkers told us there were always about 100 eggs per nest and they had never seen a hatching with so few babies.  So we waited, and waited, and waited.  

While we waited, we went for a little walk down the beach and saw another nest that had obviously just hatched and we viewed the hundreds of tiny turtle tracks in the sand.  “This was a normal hatching,” we were told.  “All the babies came at once and it looks like there were a lot of them.”  

The turtle walkers doubted we would see any more baby turtles but we headed back to the first nest just in case, as they speculated about what might have caused the low numbers.  Maybe there were fire ants in the nest that ate right through the eggs, they thought.  Maybe ghost crabs ate some of the eggs.

We walked slowly back to the still marked off nest and when we got there were thrilled to see a little movement in the sand.  Another little hatchling was trying to dig his way out.  So we sat in the sand to wait and see what might happen.  

It was a beautiful night, cool and breezy with the moon over head, its glow a little hazy from thin cloud cover.  A halo of light surrounded it in the sky and the water lapped gently at the shore.  There was no sign of a hurricane lurking out in the distance, no indication of the danger that lay beyond the horizon.  It was just us, a few other tourists, and the turtle walkers, to appreciate the quiet sound of the little waves and the cool gusts of soft wind that blew every few minutes on the beautiful beaches of Anna Maria Island. The turtle babies were in no hurry and we had all night to wait.

It was probably 40 minutes, maybe longer, when finally the hatchlings started to dig themselves out of a little hole in the sandy nest.  They call the hatching a “boil” because that is what it looks like the sand is doing, as dozens and dozens of tiny little turtles all squirm and wiggle and fight their way out of the nest to crawl towards their watery home.  This time, like they are supposed to, all the hatchlings decided to come out together and someone counted close to 70 babies.  

 Once again we followed carefully behind them straining our eyes in the dark to watch their perilous trek over seashells and seaweed to make it to the safety of the water.  Their little flippers moved quickly back and forth as they scurried to the Gulf.  Along the way, a few little hatchlings flipped and lay there helplessly waving their flippers in fear until a turtle walker saw them and flipped them back over helping them along.  In the end all the babies made it.  

It was such an indescribably amazing experience to be able to see their “birth” on the beach and their immediate independence, relying only on their innate instincts (and the kind turtle walking volunteers) to get themselves to safety.  

The brand new baby turtles were so, so cute and we wanted so much to photograph the event but were warned that any white light would disorient the hatchlings and put them in danger.  So we put our cameras away and just watched in wonder.  

When we left the beach at 11 p.m. to go back to my parent’s house for a shower and the comfortable beds in their guest room, we all sported huge satisfied smiles -- full of the memory of an awesome, awesome night.

This video is not ours and we did not see any hatchlings in daylight but it is an adorable video of a baby loggerhead on Anna Maria Island, from 2009.


  1. Our family would have loved to have seen this, Kari - what a wonderful experience! I really enjoyed reading your description and seeing the cute video. It reminded me of reading Australian Geographic journals to the children - I always wanted to go traveling afterwards!

    God bless, Kari:-)

  2. Vicky-

    We wished we could have shared the experience with so many people. I guess that is why I tried to write the post in such a way that others would almost feel they had been there too. Of course, I also wrote it so that I would be able to remember it all without any pictures to commemorate the night.

    Hope you are all doing well.

    God Bless!

  3. What an incredible experience! Thanks so much for sharing. I loved reading and felt like I was along for the journey!

  4. Valerie- It really was so incredible- one of those moments I was so glad I got to experience with my kids. I miss St. Louis sometimes, but I can't help but love living here! :)

    God Bless.



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