Have you ever wondered how those turtles know where to come back? Everyone knows the females will return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs, but how do they know? There was an interesting news article last year featuring a musician and producer who travelled the world with his microphones recording the “music” produced naturally by the beaches of the world. He would stick his microphone down into the sand and record. His analysis of the recordings led him to conclude that every beach makes its own music. The unique melodies are determined by sand texture and grain, wave action, prevailing winds and perhaps a thing or two we cannot yet appreciate. This knowledge was applied in an interesting manner. Apparently a turtle biologist in South Florida had an idea to transplant the nesting place of a group of endangered turtles. So he dug up the entire beach and transported the sand to Honduras. The whole beach. Then he released some turtle hatchings on their sand but in the new location. All were tagged. The problem is that the mature females, if any survive, will not return to their beach for another 10 years so results may take a while to be reported. But isn’t that a cool idea? Turtles just might remember how their beaches sound and it is that sound seeking that brings them home again. Now this is just a theory, but it is an exciting one.
If this theory is true, we may need to rethink how our turtle sanctuary is managed. Currently, turtle nests are dug up as soon as they are laid and the eggs transported to the tortuguero to await hatching. After they hatch, they are carried down to the beach and placed at the edge of the surf. The kids and adults who get to watch are always thrilled to see these little guys fighting against the elements on their way out to sea. But how effective is this method?
If you research methodology used at other turtle sanctuaries, their methods differ. First, newly laid nests are checked to see if they actually contain eggs. Then they are covered back up, left in place, and protected with caging. An army of volunteers is on hand to check on the nests and protect them from marauding cats, dogs, coatamundis, people, vehicles and tides. It’s a lot of hard work but the little hatchings might need to listen to the song of their sand in order to learn it by heart.
The eggs take about two months to hatch. The volunteers will start to check for hatchings during the last few days and will watch the nest closely. When the day arrives, or should I say night, volunteers will gently clear away the top layers of sand but will not assist the majority of the hatchings on their quest for the sea. There are a few important points here. One: The eggs stay buried in the sand. Two: They are allowed to emerge from the nest on their own. Three: They are allowed to find the sea by themselves. Four: It must be very dark.
We may be doing more harm than good here. Our eggs are hatched in styrofoam coolers. The babies are hand carried to the surf edge and released, sometimes during the day. While the program has been going for more than 7 years, we have no way of tracking its success rate. We know how many eggs are collected. We know how many are released. But that’s all. We could be dooming them all, we just don’t know.
Might we think about doing things the way they do it elsewhere? It’s a lot more labor intensive, but perhaps the opportunity to participate in helping the sea turtle might be a way at attract more visitors? Perhaps we could involve the local residents of Barron? We need to protect the eggs in situ. Then we need to wait. Naturally, turtle hatchings will hatch underground and then wait. They wait for the majority of the eggs to hatch. They wait for the sand overhead to cool, indicating that it is night-time. All turtle hatchings ALWAYS make their mad dash for the sea at night. There is safety in numbers and at night, there are fewer aerial predators. It also must be DARK. Any lights on the beach will confuse the hatchings and they might expend limited resources going in the wrong direction. They have about 2 days worth of food resources in their bodies when they are born. They won’t eat until they are well out to sea. The odds are against them.
What I am talking about is a lot of work. It will need an army of volunteers. But how much more successful can we be? It’s hard to say, but I for one would be willing to try. How about you?