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4 days ago, 09/18/2014 at 6:28pm

Turtle HatchlingA Turtle’s Journey

It got the point where the confinement was unbearable. She had to break out. She worked at her constraints, struggling to free herself. Once free she found herself surrounded by others who were also struggling out of their constraints, but she was still one of the lucky ones. It was a jailbreak, coordinated without words and without sight. But their initial confinement was only the start. It was dark. She was buried underground. Others were clamoring around her, stepping and grabbing anything that they could to climb out of what could be their grave. They worked together by what seemed like an accident. The ones on the top would pull the sand down on the ones below, who would pull the sand further down to ones below them. This seemingly self-serving act in fact served all of those struggling to climb up. The more the sand was pushed down, the more the ones below had something to climb on, a kind of sandy moving ladder. They worked for days as one, like they were slowly floating up through the sand until they felt the sand get warm on their noses. Then they stopped. Warmth meant sunlight and sunlight meant light that would expose them to the full brunt of the harsh realities of nature. And Nature is both awesome in it's beauty and awful in it's cruelty.

The sand cooled, telling them that the cover of darkness was upon them. The first of their group breached the surface and tried to adjust their newborn eyes. It was the first time their fresh eyes had ever witnessed any form of light, and they were going to need them to work right and work right away. They paused briefly - they knew danger was waiting for them in the gray light of night. They had to find the water. Danger lurked everywhere for them, but this sprint for the water was their biggest test. This is their equivalent of running through the machine gun fire of Omaha beach. All this because, they have been born in a convenient snack size.

The baby turtles are years away from having their size and shell provide any kind of defense from predation, their only options are run and hide. They were hatched with enough stored energy for a two day sprint with the first leg a run to the relative safety of the water. Crabs that seem small to us are menacing armored giants that can carry them into their hole to a certain death. Opportunistic birds can swoop down and end their journey when it had barely begun. It is a short distance for us, but to them it is long and fraught with dangers. Even their basic instinct to sprint towards the light can be their death if a carelessly left on light leads them away from the safety of the water and into the very dangers they are racing to avoid.

They disappear from our view as they enter the water, but their risky journey has just began. The pounding surf can injure them, a host of sea creatures can end their journey in a second, and they are still not safe from diving birds. So they swim continuously, like their life depended on it, for two full days until they reach their first refuge, Sargassum seaweed floating on the little Gulf stream that circulates around the Gulf of Mexico. Very few hatchlings from the eggs so carefully laid by their mother will make it this far. They have run the gauntlet of unimaginable horror and, for the first time in their short lives, can rest.

The sea weed is their hiding place, their transport and their cafe. The ocean currents carry the Sargassum out into the Gulf stream and to their future. They feed on a variety of small creatures that share their mobile home, or even on the Sargassum itself. They have hitched their futures to the fate of the Sargassum and the currents. If they are lucky, the currents can carry them directly to the area around the Azores, a group of islands in the mid-Atlantic ocean, but they could also be cast in cold arctic waters or into the dead end of the Sargasso Sea. Those fortunate enough to make it to the Azores remain in the area until they grow large enough to avoid most of the smaller predators when they venture into near shore waters from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean. There, they can remain until they reach maturity in 30 to 50 years. There are still threats for the larger turtles, but the nature of those threats have now changed. Now, long line fishing boats and nets can end their journey, even after making it so far and against enormous odds. Nets equipped with turtle release hatches have saved many turtles and help slow their slide towards extinction, but their situation is still perilous. But now their strong jaws are eating the crabs and not the other way around.

Our little female hatchling finally becomes a mature adult. Only one in 4,000 make it this far. Chances are that she is the only survivor from all of the nests from Fort Myers Beach from her nesting season to make it back home. She has passed every test, avoided every threat and starts to feel that primal urge to mate. She mates and, loaded up with genetic material that can stay viable for a couple of years, tries to find home. After decades of drifting in seaweed and swimming around in the far reaches of the Atlantic, she goes out looking for the same beach where she took her first breath and ran the gauntlet to the sea. It is a feat of navigation that still has no concrete explanation, and a feat of survival with few peers. She imprints to her beach when she crawls out of her hole and into the sea.

This is the story of a female loggerhead turtle that hatches on our beach and returns to lay more eggs. It is another one of the heroic stories of nature that make our world such an interesting and inspiring place. Every time you see new markings for a turtle nest here on the beach, that marks an epic and improbable journey through monstrous predators and vast distances. Every time you see a new birth announcement appear on the beach. That marks the beginning of another story, one that we hope ends happily back on our beach.

Bill Veach

Chair, Marine Resources Task Force

Photo courtesy of Turtle Time, Inc.