A Typical Day for a Sea Turtle Surveyer

By Katelyn Fraser, SCA Intern for USFWS

It’s early, really early, but a warm sea breeze, an ATV ride through a dark tunnel of sea grapes, and a magnificent, multi-hued sunrise have already combined to make my 5:30 AM wake-up time feel more than worth it. Reaching the start point of my survey, I begin checking marked nests for signs of hatchlings or predators. At a recently hatched green sea turtle nest scheduled for a Nest Productivity Assessment (NPA), mosquitos and no-see-ums bite my neck as I kneel to dig for the clutch. Working against gravity to clear away sand, I expose a small, animate flipper. Fully uncovered, the hatchling blinks at his very first view of the above ground world. I place him in a sand-filled bucket so he can save up energy while he awaits release. Further into the nest, I find more hatchlings, alive and dead, stuck in roots unable to free themselves.

SCA conservation intern Katelyn Fraser performs a sea turtle nest productivity assessment for USFWS at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge SCA intern Katelyn Fraser performs a sea turtle nest productivity assessment for USFWS at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. 

Face first in a three-and-a-half foot deep hole, breaking into a clutch of decomposing sea turtle eggs, I’ve never been more thankful for having not eaten breakfast. Pulling the eggs out in handfuls, my abs burn from holding my body in place to keep the sand from caving in. Once all the eggs are out, I start the NPA by sorting them into three categories. The first category is hatched shells. The second is full, unhatched eggs, identified by squeeze test.  If juice or goo squirts out, then it goes into a pile for the third category, broken eggs. If not, then it is placed into the pile of unhatched wholes.

Sea turtle hatchlings breaking out of their shells.

After going through the entire contents of the egg chamber, I record my findings: 88 hatched eggshells, 31 unhatched whole eggs, 4 broken unhatched eggs, 3 live hatchlings, and 1 dead. It is typical for many eggs to have failed to hatch. There are times when every hatchling in a clutch successfully emerges from their eggs and others when not a single egg hatches. Data sheets complete, I grab my bucket of live hatchlings and head towards the ocean. When female greens sea turtles reach sexual maturity, between the ages of 20-50, they return to the beach where they hatched to lay eggs of their own, finding their way back based on a biological imprint that takes place during their very first crawl from nest to surf. If I place these hatchlings directly into the ocean, that imprint won’t occur, so I release them a ways back and keep watch for hungry shorebirds as they crawl toward the water as fast as they possibly can. Once they make it past the initial breakers I glimpse them one last time as they breach the surface for a breath of air. As a Michigan native sojourning in Florida for a Student Conservation Association (SCA) internship  at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, moments like this are truly special, and I try not to take them for granted.

Sea turtles face a variety of threats at each stage of their life journey. Many of these threats are encountered before they even make it to the ocean. Eggs are threatened by a host of hungry critters, such as ghost crabs, armadillos, raccoons, and coyotes. Hatchlings must contend with tangled dune shrub roots and the flailing limbs of their siblings as they climb through sand from clutch to surface. Typically they emerge at night, when the cover of darkness affords them at least some protection.  If they hatch in the morning or during the day, they are exposed to heat and more predators, including those diabolical shorebirds. Once they make it to the water, seabirds and large fish pose a serious threat. Be it by luck or by strength, the hatchlings that survive keep swimming until they reach the sargassum rafts that grow off America’s South Atlantic coast. There they find leafy sanctuary in which to begin their “lost years,” the decades-long period of a sea turtle’s life between hatching and breeding, about which little is known.

It may seem  unfair that these adorable seafaring reptiles begin life under such perilous circumstances, but from what I have learned during my season with SCA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it seems that these remarkable creatures have evolved and adapted to survive each of these natural threats in sufficient numbers to carry on as a species. Our job as humans is to mitigate the unnatural, anthropogenic threats— marine debris, pollution, boat strikes, and so on—that have six of the world’s seven sea turtle species threatened or endangered. While I have seen many hatchlings get snatched up by birds or dragged into ghost crab holes, the saddest deaths are those caused by human activity. By limiting our personal contributions to ocean litter and pollution, and supporting conservation organizations such as SCA, we can all do our part to keep the world’s beaches and oceans safe for sea turtles and other wildlife.