Last week, our family took a trip to Bald Head Island, a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. I had never been before and didn’t know anyone who had visited — so my expectations were limited, but we were meeting one of my dear friends from college (who happens to be as much fun as anyone I know) and her family, so I knew we’d have fun.
Other than that, all I knew was that the island didn’t allow cars — and that sounded good to me. Visitors take a 20-minute ferry ride and then get around on foot, by bike or golf cart. A couple of weeks ago, I did some research. I learned that the island’s conservancy works hard to protect a range of habitat and wildlife, but one of the primary animals protected are the loggerhead and leatherback turtles that come ashore in the deep of summer nights to lay their eggs. I was able to book a so-called Turtle Walk for my friend’s family and my own.
Some of them pretended, but no one (except me) was excited about the Turtle Walk. Nonetheless, at 9 p.m., off we trotted to meet our marine biologists guides. Our group of seven was alone for the Turtle Walk and watched a short video. Still no one was excited. Then the guides explained we would go check on Nest 1, which was just about ready to hatch. To date, no sea turtle nests in North Carolina had hatched.
We drove our little golf carts to the beach access near the marked turtle nest and both the guides became giddy with excitement because the nest had begun to sink, indicating hatching (called a boil, because the tiny turtle “boil” out of the nest and scurry to the sea to swim for 48 straight hours to try and catch the Gulf Stream) was in the not-so-distant future — anywhere from hours away to three days away.
We waited and watched for a while when a call came in that a turtle had come ashore a ways down the beach and was laying eggs. We left to go watch and found a giant turtle, facing the sea, laying her eggs. It was amazing. One of the scientists who was tagging her as she was in a trace-like state as she laid, said she was the largest turtle he had ever seen on Bald Head Island. Since it was her first laying trip since they had been keeping records, we got to name her. (We named her Tonie, which is another story altogether.) When she was done, she covered the eggs and slowly ambled back to the sea. We all felt privileged to have seen it.
My friend’s 14-year-old daughter said, “I did not think this was going to be cool — I was wrong.”
We then watched the scientists unearth the eggs, count them and relocate them to a safer place. Since sea turtles are endangered, they’re taking extra steps to try and save them. Tonie laid 140 eggs. Most loggerheads lay between 100 and 120.
By then, it was nearly midnight, but we returned to the potential boil to see if the little turtles had made an appearance. To everyone’s astonishment, they had! We couldn’t calculate exactly and no one was certain why the boil was interrupted, but part of the nest had crawled out of the ground and scampered to the sea. While seven little heads and flippers were peeking through the sand, waiting to make it to the ocean.
Again, it was amazing.
It was the first sea turtle boil of the season in the state of North Carolina. About one in 1,000 sea turtles make it to the Gulf Stream. About 1 in 10,000 live to adulthood. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time and are awed and grateful to have witnessed such a rare event.
Plus, a week of operating at turtle speed was good for all of us.