I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a fan of the unexpected guests. Especially ones that show up unannounced and plan to stay for awhile. But, as often is the case, there are exceptions to every rule. So when I woke up this morning, looked outside and saw the massive turtle tracks and nest that had been built in our backyard, well I was happy to welcome these unique guests (family and friends, you still have to call first and please don’t leave your babies here).
Turtle nesting season typically happens spring until early summer and we’ve seen tracks and nests along the beach as we’ve walked the dogs. But this one decided our beach was the perfect spot to lay her eggs. I mean I’m a massive fan of our beach as well, but we kind of consider it our own and now mama turtle decided we have to share without even asking us first.
I feel like most people would be understandably upset if someone showed up in the middle of the night and said “Hey, I’m dropping my kids off to stay for the next two months – and by the way, adios.” But that’s pretty much what happened here last night. Mama turtle came ashore, lays her eggs, flashes a peace sign and say “I’m out” before heading back to the ocean and swimming away. Okay, one part of that might not be completely accurate (turtles don’t really have fingers), but the rest is true. After laying the eggs, mama turtles consider their work done and the babies are left to fend for themselves.
In our area we typically find Loggerhead and Green Sea Turtles. After having an expert friend of ours examine the tracks, we’ve determined that it is a Green Sea Turtle who has decided to entrust us with the care of her babies. Green turtles can get big, really big. As in hundreds of pounds big. Lifespans for green turtles can be up to 80 – 100 years and they start having babies sometime between 20 – 50 years old. You won’t typically find them on land, except to nest. A few weeks after mating, a female green turtle heads to the beach and digs a hole, lays her eggs in the hole (typically between 100 – 200 eggs), and then covers the eggs with sand.
The sad thing is that there is a long list of things working against these baby turtles making it to adulthood. Green turtles as well as Loggerheads are listed as endangered species and their population continues to decline for a variety of reasons. There is the human factor – poachers who want the eggs or kill the turtles for the meat. There is the environmental factor – hurricanes or other strong storm surges that might wipe the nest and eggs out. There are predatory factors – when the baby turtles hatch they have to try and get back to the sea before being swooped up as dinner by birds or crabs. If they make it to sea, they also have to survive as babies in a pretty hostile ocean environment that includes barracudas and other big fish looking for a meal. They might also accidentally get caught in fishing nets, ingest some plastic or otherwise get stuck in some kind of human trash. Phew. It’s a good thing turtles lay between 100 – 200 eggs, with hopes that at least some of them survive.
As I mentioned, mama turtles consider their work done after laying the eggs, so the baby turtles are on their own to make it to being born and then back to the water. Or they rely on total strangers to keep them safe, which is where we come in. There are lots of conservation groups in the area who work to protect turtles, but we’re kind of in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a lot of resources to rely on, so these particular baby turtles are stuck with us. I mean we don’t have any kids of our own so I’m not really sure that we’re qualified to handle this kind of responsibility. I consider myself a stellar aunt, but that’s for short periods of time. Keeping these things safe for two months? Sooooo much pressure. But the mom chose our backyard and us, so we decided to do what we can.
In the interest of keeping the nest as protected as possible, we decided to build a protective structure around the nest. To be completely honest here, part of the structure we decided to build around the nest is to prevent people from walking on it, but the major reason is to keep our dogs out. They too, are predators who like to chase, and sometimes catch, iguanas, crabs and birds. So turtle eggs might not stand a chance with them.
And so now we protect and watch and wait and worry (I guess that’s what all expectant parents do?). Between 45- 60 days to be exact. The typical gestation period for Green Sea Turtles is around 60 days, but warmer sand (which we happen to have a lot of) can speed that process up. And we’ll be waiting in the dark since once they’ve hatched, the baby turtles head towards the brightest horizon which should be the water instead of the house. While we accept them as temporary guests, we’re not looking to make this a permanent arrangement. We’ve also been told what signs to look for in the nest to indicate that they are about to hatch. Once we see those signs we’ll also be sleepless as we plan to try and watch the hatching and help the turtles make it safely to water. If and when that happens, rest assured I will share with you.
You guys, everyday I’m surprised, delighted and awed by the nature that happens all around us. Sometimes it’s brutal and harsh but sometimes it’s beautiful and pretty freaking amazing. I love that a life I used to only read about in books happens right outside our back door, and all around us for that matter! Here’s to helping nature, and these turtles, continue to survive.