I’d been expecting this miraculous event because late in April, I’d witnessed a large Olive Ridley sea turtle laying her eggs in a nest she’d dug right in front of the property. I watched as she finished laying and began the arduous task of covering up the clutch of eggs, leathery flippers flapping, throwing sand to and fro. I marked the calendar and wondered if the nest would hatch out successfully.
Sea turtle nests face so many challenges to realize the goal of 100 or so odd hatchlings emerging and scrambling to the ocean. The first night is critical, during which the scent of the liquid surrounding the eggs is still present and detectable by keen-nosed predators – coyotes, foxes and dogs to name a few. From my observations, once the nest is exposed to high daytime temperatures, the threat of discovery appears to drop significantly. However, often the nest is laid too close to the ocean and is inundated by a high tide, which drowns the developing turtle fetuses in their eggs. All it takes is for one of the eggs to begin rotting and the nest becomes detectable. Sand crabs dig into the nest and have a feast and by morning are joined by seagulls, vultures and feral dogs. If the nest makes it the 45 to 60 days it takes for the eggs to develop, once the eggs begin to hatch, a strong odor is released making the nest detectable once again, even before its diminutive inhabitants emerge.
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 his (or her) 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. One little guy’s shell was deformed on the bottom, folded as though it hadn’t had room enough to grow, leaving me to wonder if he’d survive out there in the expansive ocean.
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. And we felt their bodies pulsing with the energy of new life.
One by one they were swept out to sea by the shorebreak, one by one the cool life-giving water embraced them. 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 beach.