The Most Magical Day Yet

The Most Magical Day Yet

My shift on July 10th started just like any other day. Fellow turtle intern Rachel and I were conducting sea turtle patrol on our ATVs. We drove 5 miles north to the tip of the island, to begin traversing south. I was not paying much mind to the sand dunes, as we had already cleared the passing area of any sea turtle tracks.

Suddenly, Rachel abruptly stopped her ATV in front of me, waving her arms franticly. I knew something was not right. Did I run something over? I quickly parked and turned off my ATV. “Rachel, what is wrong? You look like you are going crazy!” I tell her. Completely out of breath, she says “LOOK!”.

Just in front of our vehicles was another turtle track. One that we had not seen on our way up. Weird. But my eyes continued landward and I was only seeing one turtle track- her incoming. But where was the outgoing track? That is when I saw her. A female Loggerhead Sea Turtle had emerged from the ocean after we patrolled the beach, and was in the process of digging her nest. My brain could not process what I was visualizing, and I could see Rachel was also at a loss for words. It is incredibly uncommon to see Loggerheads nesting during the daytime. They usually emerge at nighttime, leaving us tracks and nests to find in the morning.

Rachel and I left our vehicles parked near the water’s edge and crept up towards the nesting mother, ensuring we kept a safe distance not to spook her. Rachel notes the time: 9:20 am. She must have not arrived more than 30 minutes prior. We begin calling our fellow Resource Management team and NPS visitor staff that there was a nesting mother a couple of miles north of the offices, a site nobody should miss! One by one, our coworkers mimic our distant parking and approach, everyone in disbelief. The mother continues to mind her own business, using her hind flippers to gently scoop out sand and begin creating her egg chamber.

Me posing with the nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtle in the background.

The craziest point was park patrons in their off-road vehicles passed without a care in the world. How could their curiosity not let them stop to see this sight!? We had one vehicle stop by and join us in silence, parents and a young boy, probably not older than 4. He was so curious and we answered all of his questions as the mom began having contractions as she laid her eggs. I have always been obsessed with sea turtles and marine biology, so it melted my heart to know this young boy was having an experience I only dreamed of as a little kid. I made sure to explain to him everything that was happening, hoping it would resonate with him forever.

Once the nesting mother begins depositing her ping-pong-sized eggs, she is known to go into a trance-like state. Rachel and I approached her backside and were able to see her deposit 2-4 eggs with every push. The eggs were glistening and carefully filled in the egg chamber like a perfect game of Tetris. I lost count, but they can lay well over 100 eggs. After laying her eggs, she begins shifting her weight side to side, using her hind flippers to pack in the egg chamber. My supervisor messages Rachel and me to use our PIT scanner, a handheld research device used to see if she has been microchipped, similar to a dog or cat. We patiently wait for her to fill in her egg chamber and kick sand into the air, creating a fluffy nesting mound that will camouflage her babies.

Then, she’s off! Rachel and I remind those that are watching this spectacle to keep their distance, as she is in fact a protected species. As she begins her commute back down to the water’s edge, we use the PIT scanner and trace it along her upper carapace near her shoulders, while also looking for any metal tags on her flippers. We find neither. Standing beside her made me remember how massive these creatures are. The perfect word in Spanish would be impresionante. This must be a new mother or one that has never been encountered by scientists with tagging supplies. Once we finish checking, we join the rest of the now-growing crowd on either side, creating a large avenue of clearance for the turtle. She stops periodically to catch her breath, and I swear we make eye contact. I remind the little boy to wave goodbye at the turtle since she is returning to the ocean and leaving the eggs behind, as there is no parental care. She begins to pick up speed as the waves crash on her carapace. The water surrounds her as she gets deep enough to begin swimming. We all stand still and send her off, every minute or so she surfaces for some air. Rachel and I look at each other like little kids on Christmas morning, the miracle we never expected, but graciously accepted. As the mother disappeared into the sea, it is just before 11 am. She will return to Cape Lookout about every 2 weeks to lay several clutches of eggs. I hope the other sea turtles help her tune to nest at nighttime. Who knows, maybe this turtle is against the status quo and we will see her again.

Nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtle waves at the camera with her front flipper! Photo Credit: Morgan Barnes

I am forever grateful for my opportunity in being a Mosaics in Science Intern. I knew I would be working with sea turtles, but this surprise encounter really is just the cherry on top of a great summer.

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