My week with sea turtles

For most of the year, I don’t willingly get up before sunrise. But for one week every summer, I gladly rise before dawn and leave the house while everyone else is still sleeping. I do it for the sake of sea turtles, serving on the volunteer turtle patrol at a South Carolina beach.

For me, being on turtle patrol means that I get up when it’s still dark, walk two miles along the beach, meet interesting people who also care about wildlife, watch the sun come up, and just maybe, give a few turtles a head start in life. That’s worth getting up early for.

Sea turtles are endangered, due to loss of habitat, fishing activity, predation and being hit by boats. In response, natural resource agencies and beachfront communities around the world have developed programs to give baby sea turtles a helping hand. Think of it as leveling the playing field to make up for the human role in their endangerment.

In my community, volunteers go out each morning during nesting season to look for mother turtles’ tracks and mark where their nests are laid. Then the hatching patrol takes over, checking the nests each morning to make sure they are undisturbed, and looking for signs of hatching when the time draws near.

This morning I was practically alone on the beach when I went out. It had been raining all night, but it stopped just as I got to the beach. As I walked along, I saw deer bounding through the dunes and ghost crabs scurrying into their holes. There were no signs of predators near the nests, but crabs, raccoons and coyotes are all potential threats to the sea turtle eggs.

As the nests hatch, the baby turtles have more hazards to overcome on their way to the ocean – they can be eaten by birds, fall into holes people leave in the sand, and go in the wrong direction toward  lights from houses.  Many don’t survive the trip across the beach to the sea.

After we see that a nest has hatched, we wait three days, and then dig down into the hole to see how many eggs hatched, and if any live turtles are still inside, perhaps too weak to dig their way out. Volunteers take these turtles down closer to the water, and let them crawl out until a wave catches them and they start swimming. Usually a crowd of people gathers, and everyone clears a path for the turtles, shoos away the birds, and cheers when the turtles finally swim away with their little heads bobbing up for air.

It’s impossible to start the day with anything but a smile after witnessing something like that. I head back to the house where others are just beginning to stir, ready for coffee and breakfast, sandy, sweaty and hot, but knowing that I might have just spent the most valuable hour of my day.

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