Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reflecting on Another Record Loggerhead Nesting Season - An Intern's Story about Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge

As part of my internship with the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program, I have the opportunity to participate in loggerhead nest protection with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. My first day out at Cape Romain was the buggiest day of the season.  Not just little everyday gnats, but immortal, flesh-eating, black flies that surrounded us and would bite right through our clothing. No matter how much bug spray we poisoned our skin with, they just kept on coming.  The 90-degree weather typical of early September here in the Lowcountry certainly did not help and, as you can imagine, digging up hundreds of old sea turtle eggs smelled just delicious. 

In order to get to this unihabited barrier island, we take a boat out at sunrise.  Once we’re out on the boat with the wind in our faces, we are usually lucky enough to witness the most beautiful, captivating sunrises you can imagine.  This is good, as it reminds me of why I wake up at such an ungodly hour to volunteer with U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s (FWS) loggerhead sea turtle nest protection efforts.  It’s the most beautiful view and being on the water is so serene. I can’t even explain how refreshed it makes you feel.

As soon as we arrive at Cape Romain, we inventory all of the sea turtle nests on the island.  This means we dig up each nest that has already hatched, count the number of hatched shells, bad eggs (eggs that never hatched), live turtles, and dead turtles. It can be determined if a nest has hatched by looking for hatchling tracks and a slight concavity or indent in the sand.  If we are lucky, we might come across a little live hatchling that may have gotten stuck in the roots or could not make it out with the rest of them.  I promise you, these little nuggets are the cutest creatures you will ever see.  Their willpower to get to the ocean is absolutely ridiculous.  Hatchlings have a long way to crawl before they reach the water, and along the way they need to avoid many predators such as ghost crabs, sea gulls, and raccoons.  The strength that they possess in those little flippers astounds me.  Though they are tough, it has actually been estimated that only 1 in 1000 hatchlings will make it to sexual maturity (adulthood).  In my opinion, having the opportunity to see these little hatchlings trek it to the ocean, makes the vicious flies worth enduring.

One of my most memorable experiences at Cape Romain this year was when we arrived to the island and heard the screeching noises of very excited sea gulls. Naturally, I just assumed the seagulls were ecstatic about a floating piece of bread some fisherman had dropped.  But I was clearly wrong. Jerry, a biologist with FWS, started yelling for us to grab buckets and to follow him.  We were sprinting after him with no idea what was happening, until I saw about 50 seagulls flying around a nest that was in the process of hatching.  I was getting to see a nest hatch! We shooed all the annoying seagulls away and watched as about 80 baby sea turtles emerged from the sand.  Absolutely incredible! As they began to crawl towards the ocean we would pick them up and place them in a bucket in order to later release them to the ocean where there were no seagulls around to snatch them up.

The exhausting day of field works comes to an end after we’ve checked all the nests, and we get back on the boat.  On the ride back to the dock at McClellanville, we often see great horned owls (my favorite), peregrine falcons, dolphins, bonnet head sharks, and many other beautiful animals along with the breath-taking scenery.  The last, most satisfying perk at the end of the long but amazing day is always eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the car ride home, and looking forward to the next week of inventory!

Unfortunately, loggerhead nesting season has now come to an end and my time at Cape Romain has finished for this year.  But being able to witness a nest hatching is an experience I will never forget.  Times like these are the little pieces of natural beauty that one gets to experience on a day out at Cape Romain, and something that will be held onto forever.  Yes, you will most likely get eaten alive by monstrous black flies, but I promise you it will be worth every single bug bite.
Kelly Lane
STRP Fall 2013 Intern