Prehistoric Journey Home

Vol. 8, No. 38
Sept. 21-27, 2000
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Bay Weekly reporting family Sharon, Sarah and Mary Brewer traveled with Battle Creek Nature Center to the outer banks of North Carolina to witness the life circle of loggerhead turtles - and to learn new parts in the play of life.

photo courtesy of Hammocks Beach State Park, Swansboro, N.C.

My eyes are tired from seven hours of driving, but they are revived gazing across Bear inlet. Before us spread acres of pristine wetlands under an azure sky. Green marsh grass is dotted with great white egrets. Brown pelicans fly in formation over our heads.

We are headed for an adventure — if we can catch the last ferry to Bear Island.

I’m energetic, excited and late as we unload the car and carry tons of camping gear to the dock. Other families have also gathered, weighted by the large array of items we all deem necessary to survive for three days. At a snail’s pace, we pack ourselves onto the small ferry for the 20-minute journey.
The smell of salt water and the spray from the boat refresh us. Little do we know, as we near our final destination, what will stand between us and relaxation.

As we dock at Bear Island, Andy Brown - naturalist at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Nature Center, who will be our trip leader - orients us. "About a half mile hike up the path to the right and we'll be on the beach," he says. No problem. We snails don our shells and set off. Halfway along the stone-strewn path, sweating, I'm thinking maybe we could have done without packing those books and that extra pillow.

Finally our persistence pays off. The deep blue Atlantic spreads out before us. With what's left of my waning enthusiasm I ask, "Where shall we set up?"

"Another quarter mile or so down the beach to the right," Andy informs us.

All of a sudden, I forget why we're here. Are we refugees searching for a new homeland? Shipwreck survivors castaway on a deserted island? I'm about ready to adopt the refugee theory when I feel the warm, salty water foaming at my feet. It reminds me of our real mission, to witness female loggerhead sea turtles as they emerge from the ocean to lay their eggs.

That rare opportunity has lured 23 of us this August weekend (and 25 two weeks earlier) from our homes in Chesapeake Country. One is Cathy Cretu, of Owings, here with her nephew, Paul Sinchak, of Harwood. "I'm an avid wildlife watcher," she says. "When I found out Andy had this trip planned, I knew I wanted to go. It's a chance to see the turtles that's not too far from home and is inexpensive." Paul is excited about the trip, too, and as an expert camper, is looking forward to giving his adventuresome aunt some lessons.

Just south of Morehead City, N.C., three-mile-long Bear Island is a barrier island buffering natural sand dunes covered with sea oats and wild grasses. The sound of crashing waves combine with a strong on-shore breeze in a wild backdrop to our encounter.

Loggerheads are the most common sea turtles along the coast of North Carolina, and Bear Island is the place to see them. Because the turtles are often seen floating on top of the water, fishermen thought their oversized heads resembled logs: hence the name loggerhead. These air-breathing reptiles have a history that reaches back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The dinosaurs are long gone but, for over 150 million years, sea turtles have survived. Today all six species of sea turtles in U.S. waters are threatened or endangered. Hopes for their recovery are aided, however, by programs like this Sea Turtle Recovery Trip.

For the next three nights, researchers with the North Carolina Department of Game and Fisheries will let our group tag along on nightly turtle searches. With luck, we will get to see these elusive creatures up close and personal.

As we trudge along, I feel akin to the turtles we have come to see. Maximum effort is required to reach both our goals. A sea turtle, perfectly adapted for aquatic life, can speed through the water at amazing speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Once on land, however, her progress is slowed to a crawl by the oppressive burden of weight that can climb over 1,000 pounds.

I have spent most of this day traveling at a rate of 70 miles per hour. Slowing to a meager one mile an hour is a challenging but semi-welcome change. By now, our luggage feels like a heavy shell, and the only difference I can see between the turtles and us is that the turtles are driven by instinct while we are driven by thirst and heat exhaustion.

Along the beach, we spread out in a straggling file. Wheels from luggage carriers - stacked high with tents, chairs and coolers - make deep tracks in the sand. But our oasis is now in sight.

We have arrived at a small alcove set back from the surf and surrounded by high sand dunes. Our loads fall on the sand in heaps. Home away from home, at last. We have entered the turtles' world now and, even though it seems that we have brought half of it with us, we gradually leave our world behind.

On the Beach

photo courtesy of Catherine Cretu

We work like ants building anthills. Tents spring up all around us. They range from a large multi-chambered dwelling to pup-tent singles. Our tent, usually a snap for three experienced campers, proves a challenge this time. What seems like gale force winds snatch it out of the ground as fast as we get it staked down. To our relief, our new neighbor Kathy Gushen is handing out long wooden stakes. "It guarantees your tent's not going anywhere," she says. The stakes work. The tent finally stays where we want it.

In go the sleeping bags, pillows, backpacks and, unavoidably, lots of sand. As we emerge from our temporary abode, we are delighted to see that we are now part of a tiny civilization. The Gushen family has set up a screen shelter in the center of our new village. Here we gather, visit and plan our activities. It is also, as we are quick to discover, the only shade. The sun, wind and sand definitely have the upper hand on Bear Island.

With our work behind us, at least for the moment, we head off to explore. Mounds of green and brown seaweed block our way to the shore. When Andy was here two weeks ago, with another trip, the beach had been clear. A storm many miles out to sea has since littered the beach with Sargassum.

Sargassum, a free-floating seaweed, covers a region of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea. Sea turtles feed on this seaweed. Its presence on the shoreline of Bear Island is not so good for newly hatched loggerheads. A roadblock such as this could mean a death sentence. A pile of seaweed will be a mountain to the tiny hatchlings, and a delay of any kind decreases the probability that they will ever reach the ocean.

photo by Sharon Brewer

In water, Sargassum seaweed, below, is food for sea turtles; on land, it’s a roadblock for newly hatched sea turtles.

We meander down the beach, stepping off the soft seaweed onto the white sand jeweled with shells of all shapes and sizes. No trip to the beach is complete without a collection of seashells, and we are not disappointed. They are beautiful and strange until, at the Hammock's Beach Nature Center, we learn to match shapes with names: shark's eyes, angel wings, limpets and giant Atlantic cockles. Fossilized worm cases and coral round out our assortment.

Our booty safely tucked away, we head down the beach again to meet at the nature center for an orientation by volunteer Christine Bleck. My energy restored, I throw caution to the wind and leave my shoes behind. Who needs them? Rehabilitating from foot surgery just four weeks ago, I decide that a barefoot walk on the soft white sand is just what the doctor ordered. The soft sand gradually turns into hard sharp pebbles the last quarter mile. So much for doctor's orders.

Footsore, I am still full of anticipation as we gather for our turtle orientation.

We are two dozen citizens of Chesapeake Country come to the wilds of Bear Island as emissaries of Battle Creek Nature Center. The Calvert County center sponsors such programs to bring people face to face with the wonders of nature and, along the way, to increase environmental awareness. This sea turtle recovery trip reminds us how our actions here in Maryland affect these ancient giants.

Years ago, when naturalist Andy Brown was vacationing with his family, he had a lucky encounter with a nesting sea turtle. That memory stayed with him, flowering years later in this trip.

"This trip allows folks to observe a natural phenomenon that most don't get a chance to see," he says. We don't see nesting sea turtles on Chesapeake beaches, but in summer the Bay is a popular feeding ground for young loggerhead turtles. Tracing the journey these turtles take during their lifetime brings us to the outer banks of North Carolina. What we learn and observe here will teach us our part in the play of ancient life.

The Way of Turtles

Inside the nature center, the kids race to the display case to check out the impressive collection of sea treasures. We identify the unusual shells we have found this evening and make mental notes of others we want to keep an eye out for.

Then Christy, our guide, introduces us to the creatures we have traveled so far to see. Land turtles are fully equipped with claws and a dome-shaped shell in which to hide from predators. Unlike their land-loving cousins, sea turtles spend their whole lives in the ocean. They have evolved streamlined flippers to move them swiftly through the water. Instead of hiding from their enemies, sea turtles out-swim them. Dining on seaweed, horseshoe crabs, jellyfish and sponges, sea turtles enjoy a seafood smorgasbord. Lacking teeth, they use their sharp beaks to crush the shells of conchs and whelks for an added delicacy.

Five species of sea turtle live along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. All but the loggerhead are endangered. The hawksbill sea turtle, with its beautifully colored shell, is the source for tortoise shell once used to make jewelry but now outlawed. The high prices paid for a hawksbill shell make it difficult to protect the species.

The huge leatherback turtle has a shell covered with a tough rubbery skin rather than scales. It is the largest of the sea turtles. Reaching lengths up to six feet, it can weigh up to 1,400 pounds.

The female loggerhead's journey dwarfs our own from Chesapeake Country, for she may have traveled thousands of miles from her favorite feeding grounds to reach Bear Island, where she will spend a busy summer. She can lay up to five different nests, each containing as many as 120 eggs.

Her landing on shore is the beginning of a strenuous trek to the base of the sand dunes. Driven by deeply rooted instinct, she must exert a supreme effort to cover this relatively short distance. Once she finds the right site, her dexterous back flippers dig a hole for her leathery eggs. Celestial light and crashing waves then lead her back to the sea. Her job is done.

I am slowly learning that these animals are not going to be the close encounter I had thought. No touching, no talking and definitely no flash pictures. My grand thoughts of that prize-winning photo disappear into thin air.

As we exit to begin our adventure, we pass a huge loggerhead skeleton. Hopefully we will have the chance to meet one very much alive.

photo by Betsy Kehne

The Encounter

Newly energized, we negotiate the path back to the beach. Our flashlights, loaded with fresh batteries ready to help locate loggerheads, are useless. Artificial light can disorient the turtles. Only red light is allowed. The turtles can't see red light, so volunteers carry special flashlights equipped with red bulbs.

The turtles may not appreciate artificial light, but what about us? How are we supposed to wander the beach all night in utter darkness?

As we reach the shoreline, however, our eyes gradually adjust. It is surprising how much light there is on this moonless night. Without man-made light to interfere, starlight gets center stage. Reflected in the breaking waves, it gently illuminates our surroundings. Feeling like confident pros now, we leisurely wander along the beach, keeping an eye out for turtles and basking in the glow of Bear Island at night.

At 10pm, a truck approaches. It brings exciting news. A turtle is preparing to nest a little more than a mile down the beach. The bad news is that the truck heads back without offering a ride.

Tapping our new-found energy, we take off at a fast pace. We are impatient and, with seaweed to trip us and darkness to slow us, it seems like we will never get there. Finally our determination pays off. We can see the red lights of the researchers' flashlights.

Motioning for quiet, Christy herds us near the shore where we can see the beginning of a long line of tracks. We must stay in a silent group behind the turtle and behind her, she warns us.

Following tracks that lead like a wake away from the ocean, we gather in a semi-circle behind this big turtle. The kids sit up front for a close view. We see her large dark form partially buried in the sand. A red light illuminates her rear end. Large back flippers frame a deep hole, and we can see golf-ball-sized eggs slowly dropping into it one by one. The eggs are beautiful, glistening white like giant pearls. The leathery covering protects them as they fall onto the growing pile.

The female is in a trance, which gives the researchers time to measure and tag her. With this information, scientists can learn more about this species' life history and possible decline.

As the last egg is deposited, the turtle uses her back flippers to cover the eggs. It is amazing how these flippers work. They are so dexterous. I imagine large hands at work, slowly scooping and piling.

Coming out of her trance, she uses her front flippers to throw sand in all directions. This helps to disguise her nest and fool potential predators. She continues to work diligently, unaware that there are kids behind her getting a sand shower.

Mission accomplished, she begins the arduous task of moving her enormous body. As she starts to turn, her head catches under a large piece of driftwood. My gut feeling is to help her by moving the wood, but our guides don't interfere. She eventually frees herself.

As she turns, we finally get a look at the other end of her. Her head is very large, and we see that the name loggerhead is quite appropriate. She is now on a straight course back to the Atlantic Ocean.

She moves much faster than I had expected for such a large animal. She obviously knows where she is going, and she won't be distracted from reaching her goal. Looking like a fish out of water, she breathes laboriously under the huge weight of her shell. As she moves forward, air, forced out of her lungs by the weight, makes a loud hissing noise. It is the only sound we hear.

I am struck by the amount of effort she expends. The entire process can take as much as two and a half hours. Every step is unhurried and methodical but is produced with extreme effort.

After a 20-minute struggle, she reaches the water. It is with relief that I watch her, effortlessly at last, take off under the waves with the ease of a gliding bird.

By this time we are spread out along the shore, ankle deep in water. Everyone is quiet. We stand at peace in utter darkness, but as I look around, I can see that she was heading toward the light. Billions of stars in the Milky Way cast their soft light on the horizon, and crashing waves flash bright white as they break before me. There is no moon, but a light shines brightly enough to awaken the deeply rooted instinct in a mother sea turtle and in me.

Alive with the excitement of the night but exhausted, we snuggle down into our sleeping bags at 12:30am. How comforting to fall asleep to the distant sound of the ocean as a cool breeze caresses my cheeks. I sleepily review the day and anticipate what tomorrow will bring.

However, tomorrow comes much sooner than I expect. At precisely 1am, two Marine helicopters from Camp Lejeune fly directly over our campsite. I sit bolt upright and stare at the night sky. I'm sure we are being attacked. The kids do not move a muscle. I am amazed, for the noise is deafening.

Shortly, military maneuvers seem to have ended for the moment and the stillness returns. Now awake, I walk back toward the ocean. I am alone and undisturbed. The scene - crashing waves, constant wind and burning stars - is strong and unchanging. In my solitude, I imagine pirate ships anchored off the coast, Blackbeard lurking. It could be 400 years in the past.

But as I turn to face the mainland, enormous flares slowly parachute to earth and brighten the horizon with an eerie glow. Civilization is much closer than it seems, I reflect, and abandon myself to sleep.

I greet the next morning in a pool of sweat. I feel like a roasted chicken whose button is just about ready to pop. The morning sun peeking over the sand dunes has made an oven out of our tent. We waste no time: Pulling on our swimsuits, we race to the ocean. A smooth, sandy bottom and great waves keep us busy for an hour.

photo courtesy of Hammocks Beach State Park, Swansboro, N.C.

Salty, we pull ourselves from the water to join a small group of beachcombers. As we hunt, we look ahead to tonight's excitement. We are optimistic we will see a nest hatch.

Incubation time for the eggs is about 60 days. One nest is due to hatch today. This and all the other nests are protected by wire cages that both mark the site and discourage predators. The interns will be checking the nest throughout the night and will radio us if hatching begins.

The first sign that hatching is eminent is a depression in the sand. Soon the nest will start to 'boil' as the tiny hatchlings poke their heads out of the sand. It doesn't take long for heads, followed by bodies, to struggle to the surface and make for the ocean. Once again, instinct is the leader.

The hatchlings instinctually move in the brightest direction away from darkly silhouetted objects like sand dune profiles and vegetation. Artificial lights disorient newly-hatched sea turtles. If the young turtles head in the wrong direction, their chances for survival decrease dramatically. They can be attacked by predators or simply dry out in the same morning sun that has roasted us. Such a fate would sadly support the sobering statistic that of the approximately 10,000 eggs one female sea turtle can lay in a lifetime, only one of those may survive to adult turtlehood.

After Surprise

It is still early morning when we make the now ritual walk to the ferry that will take us back to civilization. Nearby Swansboro provides a delightful respite from the harsh midday sun of Bear Island. We spend the day exploring and discover an authentic drug store with an old-fashioned soda fountain. Hopping up on the red vinyl stools, we are entranced watching the speedy short-order cooks fry hamburgers and make pancakes at the same time. The crowning moment comes when the waitress delivers our three ice cream sodas. As the kids quickly slurp them down, just one taste sends me back to childhood. I am content in my reverie until my reawakened instinct tells me it is time to catch the ferry.

The setting sun, followed closely by a slim crescent moon, is a pleasant reminder that it is time to prepare for another night of turtle watching.

Fully dressed in a sweatshirt, long pants, tennis shoes and a cap, I am now a seasoned veteran, ready to tackle the elements one on one. This is a marked improvement over my novice attempt last night.

Andy is busy cutting red cellophane to hand out to anyone interested in making his or her ordinary flashlight into a turtle light. An involved game of sand dune tag is ongoing, and ghost crab hunt is forming on the beachfront. There is never a dull moment.

The mood is lively as we tell stories and wait for late-breaking turtle news. Other news, perhaps a rumor, is on my mind. In town, I've heard about a shark attack. Has Andy?

"Yes, just yesterday," our trip leader says.

"What?" I cough, choking on my apple juice.

Apparently, an anomaly in the Gulf Stream has resulted in delightfully warm, salty water as well as some unexpected visitors. Waters along the outer banks of North Carolina have seen three shark attacks this year. In the latest, a vacationer bit at a nearby beach required over 100 stitches from an attack in shallow water by a sand shark.

I consider a boycott on ocean swimming for the rest of our hot and sandy stay.

As the wind dies down, the evening is getting buggy. Mosquitoes have found our camp. Passing up the bug spray for the relaxing confines of our tent, Mary and I sink down into our sleeping bags to wait for news of hatching. Sarah is still engaged in a rousing ghost crab hunt.

I think of how differently I imagined this trip. I expected to be wakened from sleep three or four times during the night to see nesting turtles or hatchlings. I figured it would be an active little highway of turtles coming and going. So much for my expectations.

We've learned that we are quite lucky to have seen even one nesting turtle. Very few people in the world get to witness this increasingly rare event. This year, Bear Island had only 17 nests. Last year, there were more than twice that number.

I'm still optimistic that we will see some hatchlings. But I have learned that things may not always turn out as hoped - for us or the turtles. I drift to sleep as visions of hatchlings dance in my head.

In the Groove

The shark-attack story is fresh in my memory as we prepare to enter the water for our morning swim, but riding the waves is so much fun we throw caution to the wind.

Our hikes to and from the ferry each day are becoming easier. As we leave our campsite, we take time to note some of the creatures and plants that inhabit this island. The most visible cohabitants are the practically transparent ghost crabs. They scuttle across the sand, their distinctive tracks leading to large holes surrounded by sea oats and beach grasses.

We reach the path to the dock when someone spies a tiny green tree frog. Its suction cup feet are firmly attached to the glass on an information booth. I think he would be much more comfortable in the bayberry or wax myrtle bushes that surround us, but I guess he disagrees.

As we wait for the ferry, fiddler crabs fascinate us with their antics on the sandy flats below. For a deserted island, we sure encounter a lot of activity.

Come afternoon, we retrace the now-familiar path. The park notice board holds some terrifying pictures of lightning. One picture shows lightning hitting the beach with such powerful force it looks like a bomb just exploded. There are explicit warnings on what to do if you are caught in a thunderstorm on the island.

We're lucky to have had beautiful weather. So beautiful, that I packed the tent's rainfly in the extra stuff we carried back to the car, lightening our load for when we leave. I look up again at the cloudless sky.

As evening approaches, the soft ocean breeze once again lures me into the water for a swim. All thoughts of sharks have drifted away, and I've become part of the ocean itself. As I dive through wave after wave, I feel that I have entered another world, a place where I rely on instinct and live with the natural rhythms of my environment. Where all things are related and depend on each other for balance.

The setting sun gives me a gentle reminder that it's time to leave. I lie on the shore, the warm water lapping around me, and watch the sky change from pink to purple. I vow to bring what I have learned home with me to my real world.

I am keeping a close eye on the horizon. Ominous clouds are creeping toward us. Meanwhile, someone has confiscated a coconut that has washed up on the beach, husk and all. The kids are making it their mission to crack open this tropical castaway and are occupied for well over an hour.

Just in case we get a little shower, I inquire if anyone has an extra rainfly or tarp. My prudent decision to take ours back to the car now seems a little hasty. Neighbor Reggie Rainard generously offers his extra tarp for temporary duty. Others pitch in to help, and shortly the tent is mostly under cover. I am, however, still optimistic.

Huge, dark clouds pass on all sides, but it only sprinkles. We turn in for the night, once more hopeful we will hear some turtle news. Now it is perfectly clear, and the Milky Way is spread out in a wide strip above my head. Zipping up our snug tent, we settle down to sleep as the wind picks up.

Was that thunder I heard?

Early morning rain roars in like a hurricane, lightning and thunder adding to the chorus. At 5:30am, I hardly know what's hit us. Rain is pouring in the sides of the tent and the wind is blowing so hard that, as I lie there pretending this isn't happening, the wet ceiling touches my nose.

My hoping and praying pay off, and the storm blows over. Sarah, Mary and I slowly sit up to evaluate the situation. We now not only have beach-front property but an indoor swimming pool, too.
Into Tomorrow

As we emerge, I see most of our fellow campers already packing up. The mood is subdued, but not disappointed. We came and saw a new picture of life. It may not have been exactly as we had imagined, but it was true. The chances of seeing a nesting sea turtle are slim these days.

We break camp as quickly as we can and pack our waterlogged gear away. Now all I can think about is a nice warm shower and a comfortable bed. I climb the sand dune overlooking the campsite. Our village is gone. Footprints and wheel ruts from the cart are the only traces left behind.

We were temporary guests on this little island. For three days and nights, we became a part of a drama that has been played out for over a million years. We will return now to life in the fast lane, knowing that each summer sea turtles are following a pattern that has been unchanged for 150 million years. All of us will do our part to make sure they go for another 150 million.

Just as our experience was challenging in unexpected ways, in their lives the turtles face challenges that evolution cannot yet keep pace with.

Help Make Our World Safe for Turtles

photo courtesy of Hammocks Beach State Park.

Why are they endangered?

After 150 million years of evolution, sea turtles are now in great danger of extinction:

  • Shrimp trawling and gill-net fishing can trap and drown turtles, and other turtles are caught each year by longline fishing.

  • Coastal development throughout the southeastern United States is destroying nesting habitat. Lights from cars and buildings disorient hatchlings and discourage females from coming ashore.

  • Ocean pollution can be mistaken for food. Discarded fishing line, nets and rope can entangle sea turtles.

  • Illegal trade of turtle products, from eggs — poached to be sold for top dollars for supposed aphrodisiac properties — to jewelry, leather and cosmetics.

What has been done to help?

Since 1992, turtle excluding devices, TEDs, are required in all southeastern shrimp trawls.

  • Many areas near nesting habitats now have lighting ordinances to help reduce disorientation of hatchlings and nesting females.

  • Beach patrols protect nesting turtles and their eggs.

How can we help?

Loggerhead turtles don’t nest on the Chesapeake Bay, but there are ways in which we can help this species survive.

  • Reduce ocean pollution by picking up trash, recycling plastics and properly disposing of all potentially floating objects. Sea turtles eat floating plants and animals. A deflated balloon or plastic bag can look like a tasty jellyfish to a turtle. These objects can become lodged in the animal’s throat, leading to starvation.

  • Spread the word. By bearing witness, you educate others and increase turtle-saving awareness and action.

If you should encounter any stranded sea turtle, maintain a safe distance of 50 to 100 yards. Don’t try to feed or swim with them, and report it at once to Maryland Natural Resources Police: 800/628-9944, Stranded Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Network: 800/628-9944 (both 24 hour) or Calvert Marine Museum: 410/326-2042.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly