The Gulf Stream, that warm river within the ocean, runs closer to our state’s shoreline than any other ground in the United States. It blankets the continental shelf, where our land’s big, sandy foot drops into the abyss.
Dive in: You’ll see squid shoot through the water like rocket ships, schools of yellowfin tuna slice the sea with their razor bodies, and humpback whales capture fish in nets made of bubbles. Look overhead to watch the web-footed paddle of the Arctic tern, which travels 44,000 miles each year to feast on the Gulf Stream’s bounty. Around you, sea turtles soar like birds, dipping and recovering, sinking deep into the black shadows. Here, within the ocean’s teeming waters, sea turtles spend most of their lives, keeping their world a secret from us.
Most of us encounter sea turtles, if we encounter them at all, on the beach or in aquariums. We know baby turtles crawl down the beach to the ocean. We know mother turtles come back to shore many years later to bury eggs just as their mothers did. But what happens in between? What do turtles do during their decades abroad?
“We call the oceanic stage, where hatchling turtles grow into adults, the ‘lost years,’” says Kate Mansfield, sea turtle biologist and assistant professor at the University of Central Florida. “We know very little about their time in the lost years — where they go and what they do.”
After they hatch from their leathery, Ping-Pong ball-size eggs, sea turtles push themselves deep into the ocean and hide in webs of algae called sargassum. Nearsighted on land but eagle-eyed using the water’s lens, they spot and chomp small ocean-dwelling animals, hidden from danger in the leafy weeds. Once they hit the water, male turtles never set flipper on land again. Somehow, though, female turtles swim back to lay their eggs, many of them returning to the same beaches where, decades before, they toddled their potato chip-size bodies into the surf.
“We’ve released turtles more than 10 miles from where we captured them, and many of those returned home,” says Larisa Avens, a research fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who analyzes the growth marks in the bones of sea turtles to study their age and growth.
Sea turtles make use of their whole world to leave home and come back again. After they hatch, they follow the bright moonlight reflected on the water. Diving into the ocean, they feel the orbital motion of waves and push through the surge to orient themselves toward open waters. Weightless and suddenly graceful, happily smacking their beaks at their fellow sargassum dwellers, turtles likely watch the sun’s location and orient their bodies relative to the earth’s magnetic field. As long as they can see their waypoints, or feel the earth’s magnetic tug and flow, they can always find their way home.
To peek into turtles’ lost years, Mansfield fastens tiny trackers on the backs of loggerheads, and watches as each turtle takes its own path across the world. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” Mansfield says. “What we do know is that turtles are individuals.”
Some paddle upward to Cape Cod while others migrate south and hang around in the Gulf of Mexico or the Bahamas. “Some turtles, floating in the currents of the Atlantic Ocean, make it to the coast of Africa and back,” says Karen Clark, scientific adviser for the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles. North Carolina has four sea turtle species that swim home to our shores: loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, green, and, rarely, leatherbacks. And even more rarely, Hawksbill sea turtles.
Throughout their lives, sea turtles help replenish the ocean and shoreline with life; they add to the thrust and spin of living things. They serve as food sources for plants and animals, and omnibuses for a tiny planet of life.
As smaller turtles, they make easy meals for hungry sharks and fish patrolling the open water. But as they get older, their bodies provide a place where other creatures thrive. More than 300 small, ocean-dwelling species can build their lives on sea turtle bodies and shells. With mountains of barnacles erupting from the tough turtle scutes, mayoral crabs twittering through neighborhoods of sponges, and snails gliding like sailboats down rivers of smooth algae, each turtle becomes a swimming island.
Its inhabitants, just like earth’s inhabitants, bloom and fade with the seasons and give us clues to the turtle’s travels. “Some turtles are essentially mobile homes for a number of animal types, whose relatives may be growing attached to a dock or reef nearby,” says Michael Frick, biologist at the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research in Florida.
On shore, sea turtles’ hearty eggs help nourish the nutrient-poor sand dunes so that shore plants can grow. Each turtle can lay up to 150 eggs three to five times a year. Each time, she buries the ocean’s nutrients on shore, spreading and cycling them through the environment, doing her part to preserve her family’s birthplace.
In addition to orienting homeward using earth’s magnetic field and eyesight, to braving colder temperatures that can confine and stun them, and to the usual animal’s obstacle course of predators and disease, sea turtles must survive a bevy of human-made threats to make it home. “The conventional prediction is that sea turtles have a one in a thousand chance of making it to adulthood,” Clark says.
Turtles sometimes eat garbage they find floating in the ocean, mistaking it for their preferred diet of crustaceans. This garbage gets stuck in their digestive systems, so they starve. They get banged up by boats or stuck on fishing lines. They get snarled in fishing nets and drown.
“All four of the sea turtle species who come to North Carolina are protected under the Endangered Species Act,” says Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
North Carolinians work from the deep ocean to the shore to help turtles make it home. Fishermen install turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their nets to help the reptiles escape net tangles. “We don’t want to catch or hurt sea turtles,” says Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association. “We want everyone to help so the sea turtles will be recovered.”
Steve Parrish of S&S Trawl Shop in Supply helped design the TEDs currently used in fishers’ nets around the globe. His design earned him an Environmental Hero Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2000, commemorated with a personal letter from Al Gore. Parrish says fishermen embrace TEDs with 100 percent compliance. “These devices make fishermen’s lives easier. They allow turtles to escape and help the men sort their catch,” he says.
And on shore, a network of thousands of individuals welcomes those turtles home. “We have only two turtle biologists within the wildlife commission, so we rely on an extensive volunteer network to monitor the beaches for turtles,” Clark says.
Dr. Jim Craig is the former coordinator with the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Protection Program, one group involved with the Wildlife Resources Commission’s Sea Turtle Project. In addition to patrolling the beach for wounded and stranded turtles of all ages in winter, he and his volunteers walk stretches of beach looking for turtle tracks. “These are 250- to 350-pound animals, so their tracks are more of a sliding crawl,” Craig says. All summer, track spotters follow turtle prints to nests and protect those nests with fences from predators like raccoons, or accidental destruction from vehicles. Just before the hatchlings emerge, volunteers dig a trench from nest to surf, and wait for the sand covering the nest to crack.
“Eventually, after the sand cracks, one of the turtles decides to get on the move, and they all boil out at one time,” Craig says. When hatchlings break free from their nest, they crawl to the brightest lights available. In the natural world, the brightest light is moonlight over the water. Sometimes that light can be porch lights on oceanfront homes. “The baby turtles crawl to those houses instead of the ocean,” Clark says. “We find starved, dehydrated, and dead baby turtles that way.”
After infant turtles rush to the waves, volunteers gather information for researchers. They collect DNA samples so scientists can track which beaches turtles return to. They pick through the eggs to see how many hatched and how many didn’t survive. They bury the nest, returning it to nature. And then they search for and guard other nests, combing nearly every stretch of North Carolina’s coastline, waiting for their turtles to come home.
Sea turtles are reptiles, just like snakes and alligators, but nobody keeps vigil for the alligator. Most of us don’t wake ourselves every night and make our way through the blackness, hopeful we’ll find a snake or two. We don’t have an extensive network of lizard saviors threaded across our state. We do these things for the sea turtle, our sea turtle. Here she comes.
She catches a wave and hauls her body on shore. Not designed for land travel, the sea turtle becomes a hulking dinosaur on the beach, dragging 250 pounds, flipper flap by clumsy flipper flap, up the sand to lay her eggs. Her eyes drip tears, but that’s just her body’s way of dealing with the ocean’s salt. The inhabitants of her body’s island become tamped down, deflated, as water drains from her carapace; their commerce waits for her to glide again.
These private, awkward moments are the moments in which we know sea turtles best. We watch for these moments. We watch her big, ancient eyes, her bulky, ungraceful form, and we recognize the impossible hope that follows her flippered path.
We see the impossible hope of a mother concealing her babies from tooth and wheel like a secret under the sand. We realize the impossible hope of those babies, bursting from the earth and making a break for the ocean like wind-up toys, just like their mothers did, chasing the same moonlight over the same North Carolina waters their fathers and grandfathers chased. It’s the same moonlight their grandfathers’ grandfathers chased, too, for millions of years before them, before we humans set foot on any shore.
We feel the impossible hope of these tiny creatures pushing their bodies into the vast, deep ocean and soaring into the darkness, to the safe tangles of sea grass or the sharp teeth of propellers and predators, rolling in the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. We understand it. We’re afraid for them, but we have hope, too. Some will make it. Some will always come home.