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The Great Escape

Though these hatchlings leave our shores soon after birth, they miraculously find their way back home to complete the circle of life.

Years passed before Sophia revisited Fort Morgan Beach. She was well traveled, having cruised the Atlantic Ocean before returning to her birthplace — to lay eggs.

Sophia is a loggerhead sea turtle. She is one of many traveling across the world to a 47-mile stretch of beach that includes Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores and beyond. The distance is great, and the hazards are greater. But thankfully, turtles like Sophia get by with a little help from their friends.

Debbie Harbin is one such friend. That’s because she’s one of the 400-plus members of Share the Beach, a local organization sea turtles love — and the feeling is mutual. “I was asked to verify Sophia’s flipper tag ID,” Harbin, a Fort Morgan resident, recalls. “And just how was I supposed to do this?” she laughs. “Sophia weighs 200 pounds. She isn’t going to just shake my hand.” But Harbin and other Share the Beach operatives managed the positive identification. Welcome home, Sophia.

Since 2003, Share the Beach has advocated sea turtle preservation. Consider them turtle guardian angels. “We primarily mitigate the effects of artificial lighting on the beach,” the group’s director, Gulf Shores resident Mike Reynolds, explains. “We have battled the effects of man-made lighting most of our years.” Recalling a sad statistic, he adds, “Since the 1950s, our coast has lost tens of thousands of baby turtles due to beach lighting.”

After 55 days in the nest, baby sea turtles hatch and boil out of the nest. Three days later, volunteers with Share the Beach dig to see if any other living turtles were left behind. Photo by Barbara Haines. All sea turtle footage is obtained with the approval of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under conditions not harmful to this or other sea turtles.

 

Baby sea turtles crawl toward light, any light. It may be the reflective glow of ocean waves to safety or electric luminance from inland beach houses to doom. Share the Beach helps baby turtles see the light correctly.

“One solution is placing a three-sided tarp around the turtle’s nest, casting a shadow and blocking artificial light,” Reynolds says. “We also dig shallow trenches to the water.” When the babies “boil out” of the sand nest, they slide down the trench and scurry to the surf.  

Newly hatched boy and girl turtles face different futures immediately upon entering the water. Male babies will never again step on dry land for the rest of their lives. Female babies will one day return, decades later.

“Once in the water, baby turtles swim against the waves,” Mike notes. “And they keep on swimming.” What happens next is a miracle. 

Hatchlings the size of a silver dollar swim out about 85 miles, latch to sargassum (seaweed) mats and ride them like a magic carpet in the Gulf Stream to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s about a two-year trip.

They live on a floating jungle for 20 to 40 years. Then it’s time for homecoming. From across the globe, far out at sea, mature female sea turtles swim back to the beach where they were born, often within hundreds of feet of their birth nest. A baby female leaves our shores not much larger than a golf ball. When the mama turtle comes back, she is as big as a washtub and weighs between 200 and 400 pounds. In the dead of night, a lumbering giant hits the beach, makes a sand nest and lays more than 100 eggs on the beach. 

“She digs a hole about a foot deep, deposits eggs, then scoops sand with flippers to cover and tamp it down,” Reynolds says. The whole process takes less than two hours.

Incubation is about 58 days. Share the Beach volunteers monitor the progress, listening to the eggs with stethoscopes. They locate and guard nests, waiting to assist, as needed, every day throughout turtle nesting season, which lasts from May 1 through October 31.

Adult female sea turtles return to the beach of their birth to lay their own eggs. 

 

“After hatching, babies burrow to the surface,” the director explains. “If it pokes a nose out and senses daylight, it stops immediately, waiting until dark to continue.” Once free of the nest and above ground, the youngsters know they have minutes to survive. Find the ocean and begin life or face predators and end it.  

“Everything eats them,” Reynolds says, and he’s not lying: birds of prey, cats, dogs and even large crawfish eat baby sea turtles. “Baby turtles literally boil out of the sand, scurrying as fast as they can to the water.” But even after making it to the surf, an estimated one out of a thousand makes it to adulthood. “But as long as Share the Beach volunteers are watching, baby turtles are safe on land.”

We should also point out, Reynolds has an Endangered Species Permit, allowing him to interact with the sea turtles since they are federally protected animals. Share the Beach volunteers are covered by his license. All other sea turtle-human interaction is illegal.

The licensed volunteers keep meticulous records and share them with government agencies. Share the Beach’s turtle teams span eight regions — Fort Morgan, Laguna Key, Gulf Shores (West and East Branch), Gulf State Park, Orange Beach, Alabama Point and Dauphin Island. In 2015, 114 nests were reported. Of that, 11,865 eggs were laid, 7,957 hatched, and 7,873 made it to the sea.

Teams start basic training in April. “I dash their hopes of petting sea turtles,” Reynolds notes. “They may see nests, eggs and tracks (sea turtles don’t walk, they drag themselves through the sand. Tracks resemble a one-tire tractor mark). But unless you happen to be on the beach when the eggs hatch or mama comes to shore, you probably won’t see one.” But what a sight if you do! 

“It is hard but rewarding work,” volunteer Debbie Harbin notes. “But I enjoy it, knowing that in a small way, I helped.” And she adds with a smile, “Let’s face it; baby sea turtles are just so stinkin’ cute.”

Tenth-grader Mary Alice Jouve studied light pollution and cloud cover in urban and beach areas on the Gulf Coast. Her findings show that efforts to lessen light pollution were most successful at beachfront locations. Click here to learn more about Mary Alice and her work.  

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