One Magic Night

A just-hatched sea turtle struggles across the dark beach toward its home in the sea, with the help of a determined little boy.

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Somewhere out there swims a sea turtle named Lee.

The story began when the man at the shell shop said there could be a sea turtle nest boil (hatching) that evening. My husband, my young son, and I were vacationing at Holden Beach, North Carolina, between Wilmington and the South Carolina line. We knew nothing about turtle hatchings. But around dusk that evening, we followed the man's directions and padded across the beach toward a loggerhead nest.

Five of the world's seven species of sea turtles have been seen in North Carolina waters. Of the four known to have nested in the state, by far the most prevalent are loggerheads (named for their large heads). Females begin nesting in late spring. Crawling laboriously onto a beach at night, they lay 100 or more golf ball-size eggs above the high-tide line, then cover them in sand. About two months later, the 2-inch-long babies hatch, claw their way to the surface, and struggle across the sand to swim away in the sea. The busiest hatching season is in August.

By the time we reached the site, a group had already gathered. Many were Holden Beach Turtle Watch Program volunteers. Some of them take turns guarding nests around the clock, starting 55 days after the eggs are laid.

The Turtle Watch captain asked for help in digging a shallow, 10-foot-long trench to guide the hatchlings toward the ocean. The newborns can fall victim to crabs and other predators, and footprints and tire tracks can trap them.

Dusk faded into dark. A fat white moon shone overhead, accompanied by an eerie glow from our flashlights, dimmed with red filters or coverings of orange cloth. Hatchlings instinctively head for the glimmer of moonlight on water. Bright lights, whether from houses or flashlights, can confuse them.

We kept our trench clear with shovels and brooms. Lapping waves periodically undid our work. Over the sound of the surf, we exchanged small talk. "Shhhhhhhhh," snapped the Turtle Watch captain. "Too loud." We hushed. We stood around and waited, occasionally checking our watches. It was well past 9. Several of the families with young children headed back to their cars.

Then, shortly after 10, it happened.

The sand on top of the nest began to move, as if it were alive. Hatchlings appeared, struggling free of the sand. A steady stream of tiny turtles tottered toward the sea down the path we had made for them.

For the children, this was the stuff of dreams. The Turtle Watch captain told the youngsters they could each name a baby. There was a Yertle, a couple of Tommys, and a Larry Loggerhead. My then-5-year-old son, Lee, chose to name his turtle after himself.

Those few minutes that Lee the boy shepherded Lee the turtle were pure magic. The little hatchling scampered awkwardly, in fits and starts, its small, floppy flippers propelling it from side to side. My son's face was set in fierce determination. He was going to make sure his namesake got to the surf. They were going to succeed no matter what.

They did.

Ahead for Lee the turtle was a 50-mile swim to the Gulf Stream. There he would drift amid the ocean current for close to 10 years, nibbling on floating vegetation and small fish. Loggerheads eventually return to warm, shallow coastal waters, and the mothers almost always lay their eggs on the same beaches where they were born.

We sometimes think of that little loggerhead out there in the Atlantic, growing bigger and bigger. We just know he made it.

  Where sea turtles nest:  
 Hatchling Helpers 
To learn more, contact Holden Beach Turtle Watch Program, 153 Tuna Dr., Holden Beach, NC 28462; 910/253-0606. Or click on hbturtles.get-2.com.

• North Carolina has more than 20 sea turtle nest-monitoring projects. For more information, contact Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, P.O. Box 29613, Raleigh, NC 27626-0613; 919/661-4872.

• To learn about turtle projects in Florida, including turtle walks, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Bureau of Protected Species, 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600; 850/922-4330. Or visit the Web site of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: myflorida.com/fwc/psm.

• Sea turtle walks in South Carolina are organized at Edisto Beach and Hunting Island. For more about turtle-monitoring programs, contact the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 12559, Charleston, SC 29422; 843/762-5015.

• The following Web sites offer information on sea turtles and preservation efforts: seaturtle.org; endangered.fws.gov; and cccturtle.org.

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