Summer With Sea Turtles
July 30, 2004
Sarah Davis, a rising senior on the NC State women's golf team is spending the summer doing an internship with the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Island, N.C. The environmental technology major will receive three hours of class credit for the summer spent working with the endangered species. A native of Raleigh, N.C., Davis is on schedule to graduate in December and plans on attending grad school after that.
One of six interns selected to work this summer, Davis spends her days monitoring the beach for nests, attending to the injured sea turtles at the hospital and observing hatchlings. She then crams in as much golf as she can in waning hours of daylight that remain at the closest golf course, which is a 30-minutes away.
"It's an opportunity that not many get to do," Davis said. "It's so rare to see sea turtles. I've learned so much and I feel lucky to be doing this. It is a huge privilege."
The beach monitoring program begins at 6:30 each morning, a shift that the interns split up in a rotation.
"It's a two mile stretch of beach that we walk each morning, looking for tracks. When we find nests, we mark them off with stakes and caution tape so that nobody steps on them. We've found 35 nests so far. The average nest has about 190 eggs and they will hatch over three or four nights. It has to be pitch dark because their instincts are to follow the moonlight towards the ocean. So we often spend our evenings going door-to-door reminding people to turn off their outdoor lights. It's actually a law, but since most people here are renting, they need reminders."
It takes 60 to 90 days for the eggs to hatch, which usually puts most hatchings in the months of August and September, right after the six summer interns have gone back to school, but Davis and her group were treated to an early hatching just this past week.
"You can tell when they are about to hatch because the sand on top of the nest starts sinking down. We got to see the hatchlings emerge from this nest four nights in a row. We smoothed out a runway for them with banked sides to try and help direct them towards the ocean, but we had to redirect a couple of the strays. You can use red lenses over flashlights, but even that sometimes can distract them, so we're pretty much operating in pitch dark and we think that a couple of them were taken by crabs. The hatchlings are only about two or three inches long and they are completely vulnerable to any predators. They have about a 1/1,000 survival rate and only a 1/10,000 survival rate to their reproductive age, which is 20-30 years old."
The hatchlings that beat the odds can grow to become gigantic 400-pound sea turtles with massive flippers.
"It's nice to be there to do our part, but it's kind of depressing since none of them will probably make it."
After the morning beach walk, the early riser meets the rest of the interns at the hospital, which is located on an intercostal waterway and is one of only two sea turtle hospitals on the entire east coast. A non-profit organization, the hospital takes in sick and injured sea turtles that are brought in by people. Most have been caught in fishing nets and therefore held underwater too long, filling their lungs with water and causing a pneumonia-like illness. Others have been injured by boat propellers.
"We feed the turtles, clean their tanks and clean the turtles. You kinda have to give them baths when they are living in tanks. After lunch, we get set up for tours and open a gift store. We have 23 wounded sea turtles right now. One of them is five years old and only 10 pounds, another one is 50-60 years old and is 100-pounds underweight at 250. Some of them we have to lift on to a table to medicate. Some we have to force feed. To do that you have to tilt the head back, open the mouth and push the food down."
While many of the sea turtles are released back to the ocean once healthy, some cannot be saved.
"It is kind of depressing sometimes at the hospital. We have to
euthanize sometimes. We had to put down one that was brought in last week. It had been attacked by gators and had its flippers torn off.
So this has its highs and its lows. The highs are the hatchlings and the
releases. The lows are the ones we can't save. I just want to make a
difference and it feels good to help a species that is in jeopardy of
becoming extinct. Working this close to the situation, touching them,
feeding them and seeing them released is an amazing experience."