Persistence is Key

Last night was our second full night of patrols (the first night we went home without seeing a single turtle). I started the night off not knowing what exactly to expect from it. During our talk with the turtle team about what turtles are expected back, I was hopeful: several individual female turtles were listed off as being expected back soon and a comment was made about how the warm night seemed like perfect turtle weather. As we started the first patrol down the grassy side of the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, I had mixed feelings. Historically, the grassy side of the refuge has not received as many turtle nests as the sandy side of the refuge. However, Hurricane Maria passed close to this area last September, and the strong winds and high tides pushed back most of the vegetation while adding new sand to the beach, making it better habitat for nesting leatherbacks. And yet, we had spent much of the previous night walking the beach without seeing any turtles.

During patrol, we walk the entire stretch of the grassy side of the refuge, about 1 mile long, in about 40 minutes. We walk this stretch every hour or so. The beach is scattered with lumps of sargassum seaweed and logs – in the dark they look like they could be a turtle. From patrolling the previous night, I’ve become familiar enough with this beach that I know where the bigger tricks lie but still would not be able to tell from far away whether a lump is seaweed or a turtle. I tried not to allow myself to get too excited over the dark shapes I saw as we walked down the beach.

It was on our second patrol down to the western end of our section that Matthew and Kelly came to a stop, and I caught up to Matthew and asked what was up. He gestured ahead of us to a dark shape and said “It’s a turtle.” I was curious how he could tell it was a turtle from this far, and he recalled how he had not seen that shape during our previous patrol down this way. Looking back towards this dark shape on the beach I was finally able to make out the movement of flippers and my excitement exploded and a huge smile grew on my face, we finally got a leatherback!

As we approached her we were able to see that she was trying to nest below the berm and the nest she was attempting to dig just kept filling in with water. It was saddening to see her efforts being destroyed by each incoming wave. While the leatherback continued to dig, Kelly was attempting to persuade her to move further up shore by placing conchs under her rear flippers, so as she dug she would hit those and want to move to different spot. Kelly also checked the leatherback for tags and found that she had one on her flipper that was originally placed while nesting in Vieques, Puerto Rico, an island about 45 miles away.

After a few minutes of failed attempts to construct her nest, she headed back into the waves and swam a bit further down the beach. Then she emerged from the waves again and started digging into the sand below the berm, still way too close to the water. This time we just stood back as she nested, waiting to see what she would do. After several more attempts of trying to nest in the wet sand, and her nest caving in she turned and headed back into the water. She stayed in just behind the crashing waves and swam further west from where she had originally been attempting to nest.

She emerged from the water again. This time we were hopeful she would make it to nice dry sand that would allow her to make the perfect nest. She took her time going up the beach, and I had so much hope that this was the time that she would make it all the way up and across the berm. Then, right before she would have crossed over onto the dry, safe sand, she stopped and started digging again. This time she managed to keep from getting hit by the crashing waves but her nest was still too close to the water: it would surely be washed out in the months to come as the eggs incubated. This meant that the eggs would have to be relocated up the beach to a safer spot.

Kelly prepared the relocation bag that would be used to catch the eggs as they were released and she positioned herself lying down behind the turtle. She assisted the leatherback in digging the egg chamber because it was caving in, and then with perfect precision Kelly placed the relocation bag into the nest just seconds before eggs started being released. While the leatherback was fully in her egg laying trance, shell measurements and a DNA sample were able to be taken. The length of her carapace came in at 155cm (a little over 5 feet) and her beauty did not go unnoticed, the way the moonlight reflected off her shell, the precision of every movement she made and her persistence in wanting to lay her eggs. She could have returned to the crystal blue water after her first nesting attempt but she was determined and persistent, even if the final spot she chose was not the most ideal.

I was broken out of my trance of this marvelous creature’s beauty as Kelly pulled the relocation bag out of the nest and backed up as sand started to get flung. We all headed up the beach to the spot where the eggs would be re-laid in their new safe location. Kelly started digging in the sand, making the nest cavity as close in depth and width to the real thing as possible. She placed the relocation bag in the bottom of her newly made nest cavity and then gently created a hole in the bottom of the plastic bag, to slowly allow the eggs to come out of the bag and roughly fill the nest cavity in the same order as the mother did the first time. The distance from the nest to the closest stake markers was recorded and then sand was packed in on top and the surface of the nest was marked with a conch.

I walked back over to the mother leatherback and watched as she pushed sand over the nest cavity that no longer held her eggs. She then moved around the surrounding area, flicking sand behind her in order to disguise where her nest was. She worked on this for a while, persistent in making sure her nest area would be difficult to spot. I was amazed by her dedication to get her nest location completely disguised and while she did not know that her precious eggs had been moved, I was glad that we had provided those eggs with a fighting chance in their hard world.

When she finally deemed the area completely disguised she positioned herself towards the water. Using her powerful front and rear flippers she pushed her large and heavy body toward the crashing waves, the moonlight lighting up her path. The almost full moon, illuminated the water and allowed us to watch her as she swam away, sticking her head out of the water and taking that final breath before leaving from our sight.

Through watching her entire process of trying to find the perfect nesting area, it was clear that persistence is the key, and even though her final nesting spot was not the most suitable, we were there to provide a bit of support, in a joint effort to help this newest generation of leatherbacks.

A picture of the ocean, with the dawn sky lining the horizon, taken when we were back from the patrol