Here on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks, we had a few rainy days last week…and a tornado warning that sent us scurrying into the locker room at the gym to find the safest place to weather the storm (it never arrived).
The next morning, as we often do, Robin and I got up early and walked down the beach. It’s typical this time of year to see roped off areas noting sea turtle egg nests. A National Park Service ranger sat in a truck nearby; we rousted him out to ask some questions.
Now there is a dispute about the efficacy of the Park Service down here, and the matter of a lawsuit from the Audubon Society demanding that the service be more aggressive in protecting wildlife, while the local people would prefer to protect their beach access. I don’t know enough about the details to take sides. I do know that there’s a consent decree that has forced the Park Service to spend more money here.
Personally, I’m crazy about the Park Service. Every ranger I’ve ever met has been passionate about their work, friendly and eager to share information. (I’m sure there are some grumps and jerks in there too; I just haven’t managed to run into them.)
So Robin and I pelted ranger Eric Frey with sea turtle questions. He showed us the tracks where a female turtle had come up in the night to deposit her eggs. The NPS patrols the beach at 5am every morning to find the new nests, cover them with sand to deter predator crabs, and to stake up tape around the area warning people to stay away.
Each female lays, on average, 110 eggs. She scurries back into the water and never sees them again. This action she can do up to five times a summer. Depending on the weather, it takes up to two months for the eggs to hatch, and then the nestlings have to find their way down to the water. If they make it that far (many don’t), they light out for the Gulf Stream, swimming like mad, not stopping even to eat. They spend their childhoods there, only returning to the beaches after mating when they’re about 20 years old or so. Their lifespan, so far as anyone knows, is about 80 years.
Since each female can lay over 500 eggs a season, and our oceans are not swarming with sea turtles, you can see how precarious the turtles’ early lives must be. And yet local reports constantly note that nests have been violated by humans overnight, or that sea turtles have been found killed on the beach. Breaks your heart.
Two seasons ago, a young whale washed up on the beach here, and the Park Service managed the crowds while veterinarians from the nearby aquarium autopsied it. It took all day, and the whole time, NPS personnel chatted with us curious bystanders and explained what was going on. We remembered that Ranger Frey had talked with us then too.