One September night in fifth grade, I crouched paralyzed with excitement on a North Carolina beach. A strange set of tracks lay before me: the pattern of swirls and grooves in the sand looked like an enormous millipede extending from the ocean to the dunes. At the end of the tracks lay a freshly turned mound of sand. Inside that mound, I knew, were hundreds of eggs incubating into baby sea turtles. As I kneeled over the raised nest, I imagined the eggs as still warm from their mother’s body.
My class was on a two-day field trip to the Outer Banks, where we’d spent the evening learning about loggerheads and leatherbacks, capping the lesson off with a night walk along the beach. Every year, nesting females return to the beaches where they were born—nest fidelity, it’s called—to lay the eggs that will become the next generation of sea turtles. And here we were, with the incredible fortune to see the phenomenon in action. At the moment our guide announced in shrill tones that this was indeed a turtle nest, I found myself so adrenalized I had difficulty breathing.
On her hands and knees, our guide began to shovel sand away from the apex of the nest. She enlisted the help of two other children and, moments later, triumphantly raised a spherical, white egg to the sky. None of this behavior struck me as strange until the guide offered me the egg itself, and it felt wrong: weightless and hollow.
And I realized then I’d been duped—it was a ping pong ball.
The entire act had been a ruse, poorly designed, I supposed, to get the class excited about nature. But for the kids who already lived for bizarre encounters with the natural world—I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who collected sugar ants for “circuses” and attempted telepathy with neighborhood toads—the demonstration was a betrayal. That was the night I traded in some unfettered wonder and faith in adults.
What I didn’t lose that night was an interest in sea turtles. I got the chance to interact with live ones later, when I became an intern at the South Carolina Aquarium, which has an excellent rehabilitation program for injured and ill sea turtles. But this past weekend, when I had the opportunity to attend a nest inventory, was still the first time I’d ever seen a real nest.
Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina has nine nests this year, all from loggerheads. Officials know this thanks to a team of volunteers who walk the park’s beaches early each morning in search of tell-tale tracks in the sand. The number of nests vary from year to year, as sea turtles nest cyclically—females breed every few years, though they may lay several nests in a given breeding season. The eggs incubate for about sixty days. Then, by cover of night, the little ones emerge and scuttle to the ocean.
Three days after hatching, the park’s officials come by to excavate the nest. Taking inventory allows them to keep track of how many eggs don’t hatch and to search for any stragglers or dead nestlings (typically there’s something wrong with the sea turtles that don’t make it out within three days). Analyzing these trends gives officials a more complete picture of the health of females returning to their familial beaches in South Carolina.
At the inventory I attended, 105 eggs hatched, four did not (they may not even have been fertilized), and everyone made it out of the nest. Those are good numbers, and one of the officials present hoped the remaining five nests would be just as successful.
Nobody offered me an egg this time, but now I know better–each of the six sea turtle species in American waters is federally protected, making it illegal for civilians to touch or interact with the animals in any way.