This is a sea turtle crawl. I saw it!
This was my week off, but my boss called me up on Sunday night anyway. “I found a turtle crawl when I was walking along the beach today,” she said. “It’s right near the trailer. I gave the turtle people a call and they are going to work it up tomorrow morning. Do you want to come?”
My roommate said no way; it would have meant leaving our trailer at seven, which was too early for her. Me? I was ecstatic. I knew that I wouldn’t see an actual turtle, but sea turtles are some of the most symbolic threatened animals in ocean systems. Tens of thousands of sea turtles are caught by fishing vessels each year. The turtles are also threatened by global warming, and here on the Gulf Coast, they had a particularly rough season last year with the BP oil spill. So: everyone knows about sea turtles.
In fact, many days when we walk to work people ask us how the turtles are doing and are surprised to find out that there are other species of interest on the beach besides the turtles. Besides the obvious importance of the turtles, it would just be plain cool. So yes, I said, I’ll be there.
After a walk down the beach we found Marv, the turtle volunteer looking at the nest. He was a pretty old guy, still wearing his bike helmet from the ATV ride which had taken him here. He had already dug down to find the eggs – which were buried about a foot deep in the sand – and then covered them up again, but for our benefit he dug down and brought out one of the eggs.
It was incredibly soft, fragile, and, well, un-egg-like. It was not like a bird egg or a snake egg or anything else I’ve seen on land – there was no hard shell. It was just there, kind of diaphanous. Apparently the shell is permeable, which allows the turtle babies to breathe. How cool is that? Other fun facts are that the temperature of the sand in which they are buried determines the sex of the little turtles.
So, it turns out that Marv wasn’t supposed to dig up an egg, and that it was a really bad move. When we mentioned it to the head of the turtle program later, she freaked out. The embryos attach to the shell walls after only a few hours, and after that point, turning the egg may disattach the embryo and, well, kill it. So, touching the eggs is generally a really bad idea. And by innocently mentioning it to the program head, we might have gotten Marv fired.
Which sucks. Because Marv was an old guy who really loved being a turtle volunteer. He told us about how he’d been doing patrols up and down the beach to look for crawls and nests for the last ten years and had found twenty nests. Poor Marv. I’m sorry, Marv. Don’t pick up the egg next time.
But anyway. After that, he took some measurements of the crawl and the nest. The crawl was pretty cool – you could see where the turtle had planted her flippers and dragged her body along the sand. Based on the width and pattern of the crawl, both Marv and the program head decided that it belonged to a Kemp’s Ridley, the smallest and one of the rarest species of sea turtles. I’m a little confused because everything I’ve read about them suggests that the females came ashore en masse to nest, and this was a single nest, but whatever. They are the turtle people, so they are almost certainly right, and it’s cool that the one nest I saw was from the rarest of turtles.
Next, Marv put down some wire mesh and stakes to cover the nest.
The wire will keep raccoons and coyotes from digging up the eggs and eating them, which would be bad news bears. He finished the site off with some orange tape and signs to tell beachgoers – which there aren’t many of, since we were on the restricted part of the Air Force base – not to mess with the nest.
And then we walked home, having seen a crawl and a nest and a real sea turtle egg, which is definitely more than most people can say (for good reason, turns out). How cool! I don’t know if Jamie thinks she missed out, but to me, it was definitely worth the early morning wakeup.
If you want to learn more about sea turtles, there’s a couple of websites you could check out: SeaTurtle.Org, which keeps track of nests and sightings around the world; the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research organization, now a nonprofit based out of Florida and working worldwide; the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a more politically-active nonprofit based in California; and many others.