The whole time the government was shut down, I kept thinking about turtles.
Most species of them are endangered, and humans have begun to take a keen interest in how to help them. Some of that involves protecting the beach areas where these marine creatures come ashore in spring and summer to lay their eggs.
Before so many federal employees were sent home, I had been in Ocracoke, N.C., a small island on the Outer Banks, most of which is national seashore.
That’s getting toward the northern range for sea turtle nesting. But still, this past summer the National Park Service staff had found and cordoned off 58 sea turtle nests, about four or five every mile along the beach.
Recently, the eggs had begun hatching — evident from the prints of scrabbling baby turtles in the sand, headed toward the ocean — and the service staff held public “excavations” of the nests.
Of the 110 to 120 eggs in a nest, not all hatch. And among the hatchlings, not all make it up out of the nest, which in the case of a loggerhead, is about eight inches deep. So they want to gather data and, in many cases, give the stragglers a second chance to making it to the ocean.
On one particular morning, several dozen of us hiked down the beach to a loggerhead nest where the eggs had hatched a few nights ago.
As a ranger explained more about turtles — how they spend their life at sea, but come to shore to dig holes and lay their eggs — the biotech began digging in the sand, where the nest had been marked.
She scooped carefully, handful after handful.
Within inches of the surface, she paused and then gingerly picked up a small, blackish creature, about half the size of a human’s palm.
When she held it out, the whole group went, “Awwww!” and the cameras began snapping.
The kids were fascinated. Some held back, eyes wide. Another simply could not be contained. Her mother would tug on her little pink shirt, but still she edged toward the nest, asking questions. I wondered if she would be a biologist some day.
More little turtles were to come. Most of the eggs had hatched, but the biotech set aside 43 that had not, and she opened each one. All but two were unfertilized. Those two had almost-formed turtles inside, dead.
She buried the broken eggs — everything back to the environment, like it would be naturally — but took the live turtles back to the lab for the day.
That night, as the setting sun painted a pink blush on the beach, we all came back to witness one of those events in nature that is so magical.
The staff — a ranger, law enforcement, the woman who managed the nearby pony pen and the biotech — drew a line in the sand, parallel to the surf line, and we all stood behind it. We were warned: If a wave washed any turtles among us, we were to stand absolutely still. They wouldn’t survive being stepped on.
They placed each of the 12 tiny turtles along the line and stepped back.
Immediately, most of them began scrabbling toward the water. A few were momentarily still. Another went sideways for a while. But within minutes, all were headed seward.
“This is their transformation from a land turtle to a sea turtle,” the ranger said.
As the turtles got to the wave line, most got washed backward and some got turned over. Persistent little buggers, they righted themselves and aimed once more for the ocean’s horizon.
The ranger said that if we weren’t there, the gulls would likely be picking off some of the turtles — perhaps one reason they normally hatch at night.
One after another, the little turtles got caught by a wave and washed out to see.
As the last one struggled in the wet sand, somone called out, “Swim, little guy!”
When it did, the whole group of us applauded.
Perils await. The ranger told us that only one in 1,000 sea turtles makes it to adulthood.
Those that do will be back here in 20-30 years to lay their own eggs.
Sadly, those excavations halted when the government shut down. And unless the staff snuck onto the beach to monitor the nests and aid the stragglers, the sea turtles were on their own. I wonder how many died that could have lived.
To learn more about sea turtles and follow details about the nesting season worldwide — there’s lots of fascinating data here — go to www.seaturtle.org.