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

By Eleanor Lee Yates
January 08, 2007
David Harp

Somewhere out there swims a sea turtle named Lee.

The story began when the man at the shell shop said there couldbe a sea turtle nest boil (hatching) that evening. My husband, myyoung son, and I were vacationing at Holden Beach, North Carolina,between Wilmington and the South Carolina line. We knew nothingabout turtle hatchings. But around dusk that evening, we followedthe man's directions and padded across the beach toward aloggerhead nest.

Five of the world's seven species of sea turtles have been seenin North Carolina waters. Of the four known to have nested in thestate, by far the most prevalent are loggerheads (named for theirlarge heads). Females begin nesting in late spring. Crawlinglaboriously onto a beach at night, they lay 100 or more golfball-size eggs above the high-tide line, then cover them in sand.About two months later, the 2-inch-long babies hatch, claw theirway to the surface, and struggle across the sand to swim away inthe 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 ofthem take turns guarding nests around the clock, starting 55 daysafter 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. Thenewborns can fall victim to crabs and other predators, andfootprints 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 redfilters or coverings of orange cloth. Hatchlings instinctively headfor the glimmer of moonlight on water. Bright lights, whether fromhouses or flashlights, can confuse them.

We kept our trench clear with shovels and brooms. Lapping wavesperiodically undid our work. Over the sound of the surf, weexchanged small talk. "Shhhhhhhhh," snapped the Turtle Watchcaptain. "Too loud." We hushed. We stood around and waited,occasionally checking our watches. It was well past 9. Several ofthe 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 streamof tiny turtles tottered toward the sea down the path we had madefor them.

For the children, this was the stuff of dreams. The Turtle Watchcaptain told the youngsters they could each name a baby. There wasa Yertle, a couple of Tommys, and a Larry Loggerhead. Mythen-5-year-old son, Lee, chose to name his turtle afterhimself.

Those few minutes that Lee the boy shepherded Lee the turtlewere pure magic. The little hatchling scampered awkwardly, in fitsand starts, its small, floppy flippers propelling it from side toside. My son's face was set in fierce determination. He was goingto make sure his namesake got to the surf. They were going tosucceed 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. Loggerheadseventually return to warm, shallow coastal waters, and the mothersalmost always lay their eggs on the same beaches where they wereborn.

We sometimes think of that little loggerhead out there in theAtlantic, 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, 153Tuna Dr., Holden Beach, NC 28462; 910/253-0606. Or click on hbturtles.get-2.com.

• North Carolina has more than 20 sea turtlenest-monitoring projects. For more information, contact Nongame andEndangered Wildlife Program, North Carolina Wildlife ResourcesCommission, P.O. Box 29613, Raleigh, NC 27626-0613;919/661-4872.

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

• Sea turtle walks in South Carolina are organized atEdisto Beach and Hunting Island. For more about turtle-monitoringprograms, contact the South Carolina Department of NaturalResources, P.O. Box 12559, Charleston, SC 29422; 843/762-5015.

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