By P.C. Zick @PCZick
Several years ago, I gave birth on Matanzas Beach, Florida — to a sea turtle.
And now that little baby is swimming in the Atlantic having beaten incredible odds so far. If the hatchling survives to adulthood — it takes thirty years for a female to reach maturity — it will have beaten 1,000 to 1 odds for survival.
This labor required nothing from me, except to take pictures of this hatchling’s first crawl on the sand. It barely moved at first, and the biologist conducting the dig put it in a box of wet sand until it starting moving around. They continued digging and eventually found the remains of 120 hatched eggs and four eggs that had gone bad. These are pretty good statistics, but there is no guarantee all 120 of the hatchlings made it to the sea. Those of us gathered on the beach kept all predators away from this lone straggler, but the hatchlings didn’t have that protection when they emerged, mostly likely the night before.
When the hatchling began moving around in the box, a volunteer placed it on the sand next to the nest so it might remember the precise location of emergence. If this one turns out to be a female, in approximately thirty years this same turtle most likely will come ashore at Matanzas and lay its first batch of eggs. The scientists believe the turtles tap into the Earth’s magnetic field while in the nest.
Volunteering as a sea turtle patroller requires walking the beach before 7 a.m. By the end of the summer, many of the volunteers have decided it is too much. The staff who run the sea turtle program call those of us make it through the entire season the “dedicated ones.” I always thought the end of the season, when the hatchlings emerged, was the payment for the dawn walks on the beach once a week during the summer.
One morning in June, approximately seventy days before the hatchlings in this nest emerged, I walked alone on the beach near the Matanzas Inlet. My patrol partner walked the north end of the beach near Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine. We carried our cell phones to call in reports and a stick to mark potential nests. That particular morning in June, I noticed a pattern of swishes in the sand, starting at the tide line and heading toward the dunes, but the patterns looked small for the flippers of the loggerhead, which can weigh up to 275 pounds. I walked away without leaving my stick, but as I continued my patrol, I knew nothing could have left marks in the sand in such symmetry. I called the office, reported its location and placed my stick in the sand so the biologists would be able to find it. Later it became a confirmed nest. Matanzas North Nest #3 may have been the official title, but from that day forward, I thought possessively of it as mine.
My baby sea turtle began its long walk to the sea following its instincts. A group of high school biology students formed a protective circle with the volunteers. Morning visitors to the beach, along with their vehicles, already competed for space. We left our baby a wide berth that no one could penetrate.
As the tide receded, the hatchling encountered some difficulty when the first wave hit it, but it knew just what to do — it just didn’t have the strength yet to swim out far enough not to be swept back in. Repeatedly, we watched as it attempted to go back into the ocean. We cheered each time it managed a ride and commiserated each time we saw it come back toward us.
“Watch your feet,” one of the biologists yelled when the wave swept the hatchling back toward those of us forming its shield.
Barely two-inches long, this baby looked no bigger than the sack of eggs left by sharks on the beach. The hatchling tried again, this time managing a five-foot entry into the sea, only to be swept back onto the beach again.
“This just isn’t fair,” one of the students said.
And then a big wave came as we cheered, but my baby came back near my own feet — belly up. The soft under belly, black and white spotted, faced me as its flippers frantically tried to right itself.
One of the biologists picked it up, walked out into the ocean for over ten feet, and let the sea turtle go into its world undersea.
In one hour this baby had been pulled from the sand, crawled for the first time and then swam away to fend for itself in the sea. We had done all we could to protect it.
“Safe passage,” I whispered.