Fending for ourselves: Loggerhead Sea turtles, nature and me

I’m not going to lie; I wasn’t all that excited about camping on Cape Island last Wednesday night. I mean sure, I probably should have been excited about going camping for the first time in my life. But the thunderstorms that were ripping through the area for the past two nights before this “life altering” camping trip were giving me second thoughts. I spent the entire day in the office taking frequent glimpse out the window at the grey skies that didn’t seem to let up.

I toyed with the idea of not going because lightening and I just don’t mix. I’m a city girl at heart. So the beach plus lightening, rain and I did not seem desirable in my eyes.

As my work day at the Sewee Environmental Education Center winded down, I found myself still filled with reservations. My supervisor who was hell bent on keeping my spirits up about the camping trip took the liberty of checking the overnight forecast for me before I left. As I walked out the center and looked to the sky I decided that I might never have this opportunity again in my life, so I sucked it up and made the executive decision to go.
I found myself hastily trying to decide what I should and should not bring. I knew that less was better especially if the tent was small, or if we had to walk a distance. So I stuffed my dry bag until I was satisfied.

Trudging across the gravel towards the truck - with the boat on the back - I had my sleeping bag, cooler, dry bag, tent, and boots all in tow. I was STILL reserved, but I was ready! Because the campsite was on Cape Island - a Barrier Island - we boarded the work boat like we do on the weekends and prepared for our 20 minute trip through the Inner Coastal Waterways.

The trip was like any other work day but instead of catching a front row seat to the amazing sunrise, I was sitting back on the bumpy ride trying to convince myself that the sunset was in fact the sunrise. This overnight camping trip would not end with rain spewing out the sky like the night before.

I’d never even pitched a tent before, but to my surprise I pitched the sturdiest tent of the night all by myself! The purpose of the camping trip was in fact a “work” trip. Camping! How cool is that? Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge has the largest nesting beach for Loggerhead Sea turtles - a threatened species - in South Carolina. As the summer winds down so does the nesting season which means hatchlings are beginning to emerge.

Because the park needs to take inventory, they set up a series of overnight trips where we may have the rare opportunity to see a nesting Loggerhead and piping (hatching) hatchlings make a hurried escape from their clutch to the shores awaiting waters. These turtles only come on land at night to lay their eggs. Then they return to sea. Sexual maturity does not take place for Loggerheads until after the first 30 years of their life. These are some big turtles, growing from about 150-400 lbs, in comparison to the hatchlings that literally fit in the palm of your hand. This fact is a hard one to believe.

Every week I take center stage in front of children from the ages of three to 13 teaching them about native reptiles in the area. Every week I run my spiel on Loggerhead Sea turtles. But witnessing with my own eyes the actual process that l speak so “confidently” about solidified the point of this internship for me. To be able to see the capacity of these “Big Mamas,” to stroke the barnacle covered carapace, to feel the thickness of the scaly, soft, and flimsy skin of a flipper, to guide this strong creature back to the oceans edge with a flashlight made everything come full circle for me. For every 1,000 Loggerhead Sea turtles that are born on beaches across the country only one - that’s right ONE - will make it to adulthood. They aren’t the smartest creatures in the sea but their instincts are uncanny!

Needless to say, my excitement lasted me well into the wee hours of the morning. There wasn’t a rumble in the sky that night - thank goodness - but there was a rumbling of mosquito outside my tent that would not quit.

The Morning after: we scaled the beach like we normally do EXCEPT I found four straggling hatchlings turned around in the dunes. I was able to set them free into the ocean on the right trail. Watching them waddle to the water going everywhere but straight was a bit emotional. Here these little guys are already turned around and on the dangerous heavy shorebird populated beach trying to navigate them to the ocean’s edge with no “Big Mama” to help or protect them. At that moment when the wave comes crashing on the shore and it retreats back to the ocean to repeat again, you realize that just like that – POOF - the hatchling is gone to fend for itself.