The Hawksbill sea turtle has been beating the odds for millions of years, and with a little help from humans, they will continue to beat the odds.

If there is such a thing as reincarnation, you should avoid being a sea turtle if you want to live long and prosper. When sea turtles hatch and begin their march into the sea, they don’t know that the odds of survival are massively stacked against them.

Only one or two sea turtles out of a thousand survive into adulthood. The rest will be taken by predators and experience misfortunes like dying from the ingestion of plastic or drown in fishing nets at sea.

In the six month sea turtle nesting season on the Zapatillas Islands, about 5500 sea turtle nests were monitored and protected this year. 120 to 150 eggs hatch in each nest, which means that between 600,000 to 800,000 turtles hatch and make their short pilgrimage into the sea. Out of all those hatchlings, only 600 to 1600 will survive into adulthood when it is possible for them to reproduce.

Conservation groups protect sea turtles around the world. In practical terms, that means the turtles are protected from the time the eggs are laid in the sand until hatchlings leave the nest and make a mad dash into the sea.

The first predator that sea turtles must overcome is humans who like to eat sea turtle eggs. That’s why it’s important to make indigenous peoples around the world part of the sea turtle protection team. If you pay them to protect the turtle eggs rather than eat them, you have won the first battle to protect the species.

It’s easy to find sea turtle nests when you have small islands under daily surveillance. When a female turtle comes up the beach to lay the eggs, she leaves tracks that lead straight to the nest. That makes it easy for conservationists to find and protect the nests.

The caretaker on the north and south Zapatillas spends six months a year walking the beach perimeter looking for sea turtle tracks which shows him the location of the nests which he marks with a ribbon and logs onto a spreadsheet.

The caretaker knows the location and the date each clutch of eggs were laid, which means he knows when they will hatch. Most nests hatch between 60-70 days after being laid. If the turtles have not emerged and made their pilgrimage to the sea spontaneously within seventy days, the caretaker digs up the nest and sets the turtles free. 70 days is the magic number that sets all the turtles free.

When you are tending 5500 nests over six months, it’s essential to have a spreadsheet to keep up with what is happening to all the nests.

The caretaker has been doing this work for 15 years, and seems to be knowledgeable and good at what he is doing. He is an indigenous caretaker from the Salt Creek community on Basimentos Island a few miles away.

Turtles beating the odds

The nest we observed had 148 turtles that made their way into the sea. Ten sea turtle eggs did not hatch. Although it’s impossible to count the hatchlings as they make their dash into the sea, you can count the egg shells in the nest to find out how many actually hatched. The caretaker counted all the eggs and recorded the number that hatched.

Turtle beating the odds

After counting the hatched shells, he opened those that did not hatch, and those shells only contained yellow yolk without any turtles inside. I would think that having only ten eggs that did not hatch is a good outcome from the 158 eggs that had been laid.

I had previously seen spontaneous hatching of a sea turtle nest in Australia more than 20 years ago, and I was impressed by the arduous nature of working your way to the surface through one foot of loosely packed sand. Those sea turtles were exhausted by the time they made it to the surface, and they fell asleep for a few minutes as the next wave of hatchlings emerged from the nest. Then they woke up and continued their short journey to the sea.

The Zapatillas sea turtles didn’t have to fight their way through a foot of sand as the caretaker did the hard work for them. He removed the sand overlying the nest and dug a sand ramp out of the hole, and the ramp pointed the turtles in the direction of the sea.

The sea turtle nests were different in the Zapatillas because they were not situated in sand dunes. Instead, they were located at the junction where rainforest met the beach, and there is a prolific growth of jungle roots overlying the nests. The roots made it difficult for the turtles to emerge from some of the nests because the hatchlings were confined by a root prison. If the caretaker had not cleared away the roots overlying the nest, the hatchlings would never have emerged and made their way to the sea. That’s why the caretaker has a seventy day rule. If the hatchlings can’t escape the nest by seventy days, the caretaker clears away the offending roots to allow them to emerge. Once they had a way out of their root prison, they were off and running.

Uncovering the turtle nest seemed like the difference between natural childbirth and a c-section, although in this case it would be called earth section.

The Zapatillas sea turtle hatchlings were clearly fired up and ready to go. I suspect they were also hungry since they had exhausted the food in the yolk sac, and it was time for their first real meal.

It only took a few minutes for the turtles to make their exit from the nest and dip their flippers into the sea.

Baby turtles beating the odds

I wondered how many of them would survive the next 24 hours as they swam across the reef and out to sea.

It’s mind boggling to see 148 sea turtles emerge from a tiny nest that is twenty feet from the sea. It’s hard to believe that so many turtles could be crammed into such a tiny space in the ground. The only air they had to breathe was the air between the grains of sand. It’s amazing that the female sea turtle instinctively knows where to lay the eggs so the hatchlings won’t die of suffocation or drowning from high tides.

The life cycle of Hawksbill sea turtles is nothing short of miraculous, and I am grateful that conservationists are working so hard to insure the survival of the species.

Live long and prosper little Hawksbills. You are totally amazing.

Captain Dave

Captain Dave - David J. Abbott M.D.





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