Digging Down Goes Above and Beyond for Endangered Sea Turtles

“It was one of the coolest moments ever!”
Not everyone would attach those words to the impending arrival of an historically calamitous Category 5 hurricane, but Cassie Holden has her reasons, which we will get to shortly. But first, some introductions.
May 18th is Endangered Species Day. Cassie is an endangered species intern at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Camp Lejeune is a military training facility in North Carolina with 11 miles of amphibious operations beachfront, 34 gun positions, 50 tactical landing zones, 80 live fire ranges, and an urban assault exercise center known as Combat Town. 
Oh, and it’s also home to numerous endangered, threatened, or otherwise protected species including sea turtles, piping plovers, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and perhaps most appropriately: bald eagles.
The Marines, however, are not the risk here. In fact, they – along with Cassie and several other SCA interns – are working relentlessly to defend the base’s vulnerable flora and fauna. As custodian of more than 30 million acres, the Department of Defense is one of the largest public land managers in the country and DoD fields dozens of SCA interns each year to assist on key conservation projects. 
Cassie started at Camp Lejeune last summer, which brings us back to that “coolest moment.” Sea turtle nesting season begins each May along the Carolina coast and endangered loggerheads return to the base’s restricted beaches every year to lay their eggs. Cassie would rise before dawn every morning and patrol for new nests. She’d place protective cages over those she located, monitor sites for any signs of activity, and eventually escort the tiny hatchings as they scrambled to the sea. 
“We’d dig trenches in the sand, like ‘turtle bowling alleys’ with gutters on each side of the nest, to usher them toward the ocean,” she says.
In late August, however, Hurricane Irma began churning northward though the Caribbean, leaving only devastation in her wake. As the surf at Camp Lejeune began to thrash, officials issued an emergency evacuation order – not for the base, but for the beach.  
“It was August 28th,” Cassie recalls. “It was dreary and windy and Irma was predicted to hit that week. 
“All the nests on Onslow Beach were loggerheads. It is very rare for greens to nest on our beach and there hasn’t been a leatherback here in over 10 years now. 
“We checked each nest daily for signs of hatching. Sometimes the sand over the nest forms a depression, indicating the turtles have hatched and are moving underneath in an attempt to emerge. There is usually a 72-hour wait period after the last signs of emergence before we can excavate the nest. But they desperately needed to make it out of the sand and into the ocean before they were drowned by Irma’s waves!”
Racing against time and the increasingly enraged Atlantic, Cassie and her fellow SCA interns – Derek Corbin, Mallory Gyovai, Alli Potter, and Kent Walker – plus their two supervisors delicately dug through the sand by hand in search of their carapaced quarry.
“We excavated 394 hatchlings. About 13 nests if I remember correctly. With each hatchling we dug out, the smile on my face would grow, knowing that all of these turtles were being given a shot at life that without us, they might not otherwise have. That feeling of just pure amazement and happiness…It’s a day I will never ever forget. It was as if we were being rewarded for all the physical labor we’d put in, day after day in the blaring sun, to help this species’ success rate.
“We thought for sure that after Irma, and then Hurricane Jose, any remaining nests would be in too poor of a condition to successfully incubate. The tide line was extremely high and many of the nests were over-washed by the waves time and time again. We actually had to stake down the cages over the nests to prevent them from being washed away. Turns out, we had many hatchlings that still emerged! 
“On October 3rd, we excavated two nests expecting to find nothing but rotting eggs and dead hatchlings. Instead, we found that the vast majority had made it out on their own. Only 15 little stragglers were left behind and needed our help to make it out. Incredible! 
“We all were so happy that day, and amazed at the sheer power of Mother Nature, how she could be so unkind with the weather but give those tiny little hatchlings the strength to survive!”
With a new sea turtle nesting season now underway, Cassie and her SCA colleagues have resumed their daily watches and outreach. Only one in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood but those that do may live beyond the age of 60, and females who emerge from the beaches at Camp Lejeune will return there throughout their lives to burrow into the sand and lay their own eggs, more than 100 at a time.
“This is such a great part of the job,” states Cassie. “Sea turtles draw a lot of attention. Everyone wants to see them, and that gives us the opportunity to spread the word about conserving the species.
“You talk to kids at the age of eight and they’ll remember it for rest of their lives.”
Chances are Cassie will, too.
Additional intern insights:
Alli Potter: “It was a unique day in the sense that there were so many people who got to witness such an uncommon event. It gave us an opportunity to connect and educate the public which is such an important part of conservation. It was magical, breathtaking, and I think that feeling stuck around for the next few days, too. As we expected, the nests we had just excavated were over washed by higher tides due to the hurricane; so by excavating the nest, we really did give them a chance they may not have gotten had we waited.”
Derek Corbin: “It was by far the most sea turtles we saw in a day. For me, one of the most emotional parts of the day was that we had a number of people on the beach who were seeing sea turtles for the first time. I think the appreciation of their journey is paramount to the protection of this species. We did about half a dozen nests and each one was teeming with baby turtles. It was definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life and It gave me extra motivation to continue my career in environmental policy.” 
Student Conservation Association