by Dawn Pier
Yesterday, as I walked back from my morning ritual on the beach, I was treated to a bit of a miracle. There, in a small depression on the sand sat two pint-sized, grey-skinned turtle hatchlings.
I knew that there was a good chance that if I didn’t intervene, the nest would be discovered by local dogs, sand crabs and sea birds, so I set to work gently digging down into the sand to see if there were any more hatchlings making their way to the surface. As I dug down I first encountered the empty shells of eggs that had been vacated earlier. I looked up and saw hundreds of tiny flipper prints in the sand leading towards the water’s edge. Most of the hatchlings appeared to have left the nest overnight. Several inches below surface though I felt something hard with a tiny point on the end. As I scooped the sand out of the hole, a wee black head was revealed. I carefully removed the sand from around the miniscule body. His mini flippers flapped about as I lifted and placed him next to his two clutch mates. Gradually, I uncovered more and more of the little guys.
Near the bottom of the nest I uncovered what always makes my stomach lurch – dead, but fully developed, hatchlings being eaten by maggots. Now a smell emanated from the nest that made my nose try to squeeze shut and I did my best not to breath it in. Felipe, my caretaker, dug a hole where I could dispose of the writhing miniature corpses. Even though most of the eggs I encountered at that depth contained dead turtles, I continued to find the odd hatchling that was alive and thriving.
We counted 19 in all as they scooted around knocking with their sharp little beaks the sides of the plastic bucket I placed them in – beaks perfectly designed to let them scrape open their eggshells when the time was right. We walked them closer to the water’s edge and I began to place them, one at a time, on the damp sand. As though prompted by a starting gun, they began to scramble towards the water immediately, their flippers flapping in a mad frenzy, their bodies rocking to and fro. We stood vigil over them as they made their way to the sea, keeping an eye on a lone seagull standing just down the beach, watching for sand crabs that might in a flash pull one down their hole. We lifted and righted them as they were caught in deep foot prints or flipped over by uneven terrain.
One by one, they were swept out to sea by the shorebreak; one by one, the cool life-giving water embraced their bodies. Watching their tiny black heads poke up to gasp for air between the crashing of waves, I prayed the fish and pelicans would not find them, that they would make it out into the deep sea to drift, surviving on algae and zooplankton, until one day, their long journey may bring them back here to my home on this isolated East Cape beach.
Dawn Pier worked in sea turtle conservation for three years while directing Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo. Find out more about our East Cape Amiga.
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