Loggerhead Hatchlings: Heartbreak & Hope
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
At Mon Repos Beach, on Australia’s East Coast, we waited and waited, and then we waited some more, but as night deepened it became clear no turtles were hatching that evening. With heavy rain earlier in the day, the rangers felt it might be a bit cool, but still they scoured the protected beach for signs of activity. We, on the other hand, were all in the new turtle centre, sweltering in our raincoats so we would be ready to make our way onto the pitch-black beach the minute a nest started to boil.
In order to still give us an opportunity to engage in turtle conservation, our ranger guide Lauren took us down to the beach to dig up a Loggerhead turtle’s nest that had hatched three days before. This is an important part of the research being carried out at the Mon Repos turtle sanctuary, located near Bundaberg in Queensland.
Kneeling, Lauren carefully dug out the nest with her hands. She reverently lifted out one tiny dead body after another, laying them out on the sand. It was heartbreaking. She said the turtles likely perished when the sand at the upper level of the nest became too hot, something that was happening more often as our climate warms. Lauren said successful hatchings of the endangered Loggerhead turtles are decreasing each year as our summer temperatures rise. To see the evidence of this laid out on the sand like this hurt my heart.
Then Lauren said she felt movement. She worked her hands into the sand until she found a tiny Loggerhead tangled in some grass. She was dazed, but alive. The wonder we felt when she lifted the hatchling from the nest, when so many little bodies were lined up along its edge, filled us with gratitude. Her little flippers started flapping madly like a wind up toy from the minute she was gently lifted into the night air. Instinct had kicked in and she was already swimming in an unknown sea.
Lauren continued to gently feel around in the sand and, after pulling out a few more tiny corpses, lifted out a second survivor. The little ones were placed in a small corral to recover from the ordeal of being trapped in their nest. While they rested, Lauren started digging for the egg mass – the broken eggs, and those that had not hatched, which were located at the bottom of the hole. By the time she reached them she was head down waist deep in the sand. She said this was one of the deepest nests she had seen. Despite the number of dead hatchlings, she also found evidence that a large number of eggs had successfully hatched in the days before. This was good news.
Mon Repos supports the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the East coast of Australia, and the most significant Loggerhead Turtle nesting population in the South Pacific. The continued success of nesting and hatching turtles at Mon Repos is critical for the Loggerhead’s survival as a species. Its turtle centre is dedicated to marine turtle research, protection and education.
Throughout turtle season, which runs from November to March, rangers and volunteers take groups of people to either witness the females lumbering up the beach to dig their nests and lay their eggs (November to January), or watch groups of hatchlings break through the sand (January-March) and make their way to the sea. If you book a seat on the Turtle Express, run by Bundaberg Coaches, you get a ride to the sanctuary. Of course as we discovered, nothing is guaranteed. These are wild creatures with their own schedule to keep. But if you are lucky enough to be at Mon Repos when one of these incredible events take place, I promise it will touch your heart.
I am so grateful I was given the privilege of welcoming these two tiny lives into the world, but can’t help wondering if the day will come when the Loggerheads are gone from our planet. Their existence is already so fragile with only 1 in 1000 of the hatchlings surviving to maturity. Predators, boat propellers and, increasingly, plastic, which resembles some of their favourite foods, can all cut short a turtle’s life. And yet looking at these two, so bent on survival despite their rocky start, I have to hope.
Then it was time. Steve, a turtle volunteer gently carried the precious two around the circle so we could lightly touch them, photograph them by the light of his headlamp, and wish them well on their journey. I lightly ran my finger down a tiny sandy flipper, and when it rested on my fingertip for a couple of seconds, my heart cracked wide open. This brand new life, whose kind had been on the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, had marked me. I touched it, and it touched me - our souls connected now through time. I found I could scarcely breathe. To be trusted by something so fragile and mysterious was magical indeed.
The hatchlings moved on to be blessed by the 30 or so other people who had gathered on the rain-dark beach in the middle of the night to experience this. I turned and looked up at a smattering of crystal stars shining over a deep dark ocean, fringed with low white waves. I felt a sob escape me as I fervently hoped we humans wouldn’t screw this up.
Then it was time to release them for their perilous trek across the sand to the Pacific Ocean. Making this exhausting journey is crucial for the magnetic imprinting to occur that will lead the female back to this very piece of sand when it is time to lay her eggs. If she survives, it will be 30 years before she sees this beach again.
If life is kind to me, I will be 84 years old on the day that happens.
In the meantime, she will have circumnavigated the globe, swimming to New Zealand and on to South America, possibly adding places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia to her itinerary. The Loggerheads are not alone - Green Turtles and Flatbacks also nest at Mon Repos, but in much smaller numbers.
On the beach several people spread out to form a line from the nest sight to the water’s edge with their legs apart, shining a torch on the sand between their feet. The two hatchlings were released to follow that path of light to the sea, just as they move towards the low horizon light when they hatch unaided. This is why light pollution can lead to the loss of hatching turtles. As coastal development booms, it is so easy for them to get disoriented and move towards the light from houses along the shore and away from the sea. It is also the reason we had to navigate the beach in complete darkness. On a moonless night filled with storm clouds, this was no easy task, but it also added to the magic of the evening.
Our little hatchlings pedalled faster and faster as they approached the waves. They were Loggerheads on a mission. Collectively we willed them on, every step of the way, triumphant as they managed to clamber over insurmountable obstacles, so determined to reach saltwater.
To see a group of strangers completely united in awe, wonder, and goodwill warmed my heart. Did I regret not getting to see a mass hatching of dozens of turtles? Not one bit. For me this experience was even more poignant because there were only two - two little survivors facing impossible odds.
For such tiny creatures (they weren’t even as long as my little finger), that struggle to the ocean must have seemed endless. Watching them it was hard to imagine these babies fully grown, measuring up to 1.5 meters in length.
As one we held our breath as the water rushed up to welcome them. They were tumbled about by the waves a little, before vanishing into the darkness - the rest of the journey theirs alone.
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