Touched by Tiny Turtles

Sea Turtle Season Was a Moving Experience for Sarika Khanwilkar

Most beach experiences involve sunshine, right? For humans, sure, but not for wildlife. The darkness of night provides the camouflage necessary for seven species of reptile to nest. All over the world for the past 120 million years, sea turtles have emerged from the ocean each spring and used the sand to hide and incubate their eggs.

The beach at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a place where people and shorebirds actively roam the surface in the daytime, and sea turtles plant future generations under the sand at night. It still feels like a dream to say that I am an SCA intern at one of the most productive sea turtle nesting habitats in the United States.

When March arrived, the sand awakened with turtle tracks, an ephemeral sign of the previous night’s activity. Leatherbacks are the first turtle species to nest.  Seeing these tracks helped me grasp the immense size of the largest and heaviest species of sea turtle. It was easy to tell a leatherback nest from the rest.

In addition to leatherbacks, green and loggerhead sea turtles also nest at Hobe Sound (NWR), and all three species have a unique way of moving in the sand. This allows us to carefully monitor and  track nesting trends for each individual species. “Guess the Species” was a fun game to play, but you had to start early and move fast to finish before the wind and waves erased the tracks. Gathering such data allows Hobe Sound to make adaptive, science-based management decisions that aid in the sea turtle’s continued existence.

Through spring, I saw all the signs of sea turtle nesting (tracks and large amounts of displaced sand) but it was up to my imagination to visualize the nightly beach excursions undertaken by egg laying-female sea turtles. Then, June arrived - the beginning of summer, the beginning of sea turtle walks at the Hobe Sound Nature Center, and the beginning of my sea turtle obsession. As apart of my SCA internship, I was trained as a Turtle Scout. This privilege entailed walking the beach at night in search of nesting loggerheads, and sharing this experience with visitors. Just thinking about my first night leading guests along the beach in search of these ancient reptiles makes my heart beat faster with the thrill.

Suddenly, as we were waiting for the first turtle to start digging, the carapace of another enormous turtle emerged from the water’s edge only feet from where we were sitting!

No flashlights were allowed, so my eyes had to slowly adjust to the faint glow of the moon.  I was with two other Turtle Scouts, walking along the water’s edge, searching for turtle tracks, a large underwater shadow, or a dark object in the distance that seemed to be moving. It felt surreal. With my vision reduced to grayscale, my other senses seemed to magnify. The smell of the salt, the feel of the warm breeze, and the sound of crashing waves. Nighttime at the beach isn’t welcoming to species, such as humans, who rely so heavily on their sense of vision to perceive the world.

We came upon a track leading toward the dunes and could just make out a dark blob crawling further up the sand. Still and quiet, we hoped she would soon find the sweet, sandy nesting spot she was looking for so we could get within close proximity. The nesting process, always the same and repeated thousands of times on Hobe Sound NWR’s beach throughout the season, begins with the digging of a body pit. Oddly enough, once the nesting process has begun sea turtles enter a trance-like state that allows us to watch without affecting behavior.

Suddenly, as we were waiting for the first turtle to start digging, the carapace of another enormous turtle emerged from the water’s edge only feet from where we were sitting! I’ve never wanted an invisibility cloak so badly. The last thing I wanted to do was let my presence be known to this turtle, who would certainly consider a large creature like a human a threat and return to the ocean. I knew I would be holding my position for a while. I couldn’t believe the situation that I was in, sandwiched between two sea turtles on the beach in the middle of the night. My younger days of playing freeze tag were finally paying off, as the turtle scurried by towards the dune to lay her eggs.

This is the backend of a nesting loggerhead. The white streak is an egg, slightly soft so it doesn’t crack when it drops about 3 feet to hit the sand. Before she dropped her eggs, she used her back flippers, which are as dextile as our hands, to dig the egg chamber (without even looking!). When she was done laying, she used those same flippers to cover the chamber up. My compatriots and I were close enough to the action that she coated us in sand as well!

There were nights when I saw more than twenty turtles within just a couple hours on the beach, but it never stopped feeling like an amazing privilege to be there. I sometimes wonder if I will ever experience the same degree of exhaustion that a mother sea turtle feels after she nests. Imagine gliding through water your entire life, and then surfacing on the beach where all your weight is suddenly working against you, pushing down as you’re trying to move forward. I never saw it happen this season, but I’ve heard stories of turtles falling asleep while they’re nesting.

After about 6 weeks under the sand, hatchlings emerge. The egg tooth, still visible on this hours-old loggerhead’s nose (top of page), helps break the shell. 

BucketOfTurtles.JPGBabyInABucketLoggerhead.JPG

Almost as cool as witnessing the nesting process was getting to play rescuer to hatchlings who had a hard time finding their way to the surf!

After many months and several seasons living and working on a wild, undeveloped beach, my perception of beaches in general has been forever changed. Visions of sunbathing and highrise condominiums have been replaced by a complex understanding of wildlife-rich coastal ecosystems. It is here, at Hobe Sound NWR, not at some boardwalked vacation destination, where I saw the trails of my fingers light up with bioluminescence as I touched a sea turtle’s shell. It is here on the Refuge where sea turtles left a mark of light within my heart.

 


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