From Snow to Sand: Baby Sea Turtles

I’ve been writing a lot about snow lately because it’s the dominant feature of my landscape in winter.

Far away, on the other side of the globe where sand and ocean are dominant features and the weather far more temperate, live fellow bloggers Micah and Markus. One of the many reasons I love the WordPress blogging community is I get to experience other places in the world through the words and photos of people actually living there.

On December 30, 2020, I read a touching post on the Markus + Micah blog about sea turtles. A delightful young couple living in the Philippines, they usually write about healthy foods and lifestyle, yoga, their tiny house, and travel. But this post was different. Micah wrote about how as a seven year old she watched as two men, carrying a sea turtle as big as she was between them, offered to sell it to her father, who declined. Micah continued,

I never saw a turtle on our beach again, or since. I thought they were gone. I held a quiet acceptance in my heart, and remembered the turtles every once in a while, reminiscing with visiting friends. I would tell them we had turtles on our beach that laid eggs here before Christmas when I was a child. It breaks my heart, but I grew up too late, and now they are gone.

But suddenly, in October of 2020, during a pandemic year when the world went off-kilter and everything seemed bad, sad, and horribly wrong, the sea turtles returned to the beach where Micah grew up. People were finding their eggs, burrowed in sandy nests.

To protect the eggs, the local villages created a nursery, paying for any eggs brought to them. When Micah and Marcus found out about this, they started volunteering. In late December, they shared on their blog that for $10, one could sponsor a nest and receive an update on the progress of the eggs and – eventually – baby turtles. Since the nursery was a grassroots, community-based effort based on immediate needs, with no financial support from any governmental entity, every contribution made a difference.

I couldn’t send my $10 fast enough. On January 7th, Markus and Micah sent me an email with photos of the nest I had sponsored, the eggs brought to the nursery on January 2, 2021. Using those photos, I shared their story on my Facebook page, hoping to generate more donations.

On January 13th, Markus and Micah provided this update on their blog:

Thank you everyone for supporting the nesting turtles of Pag-asa, Bagac, Bataan, The Philippines. Because of your help, 3,250 turtle eggs have been adopted in two weeks, and we still have sponsors for 550 more.

They were also beginning to release some of the earliest hatchlings into the sea.

On February 25th I received an email from Micah and Markus with the subject: Turtle Mail – Your eggs are now baby turtles. Attached was a new photo of the nest I sponsored with its baby turtles freshly hatched from their eggs, ready to be transported to the beach.

Also attached was this short video clip of one of the baby turtles moving through beach sand toward the sea.

After sharing the news that “my” turtle eggs were now baby turtles, released into the sea, Markus and Micah wrote, “Hopefully, in 30 years we will see these babies again.”

The reference to 30 years caught my attention. Realizing I know almost nothing about sea turtles, I did some quick research. From a Wikipedia page I learned that,

It takes decades for sea turtles to reach sexual maturity. Mature sea turtles may migrate thousands of miles to reach breeding sites. After mating at sea, adult female sea turtles return to land to lay their eggs. Different species of sea turtles exhibit various levels of philopatry. In the extreme case, females return to the same beach where they hatched.

The definition of philopatry is also interesting.

Philopatry is the tendency of an organism to stay in or habitually return to a particular area. The causes of philopatry are numerous, but natal philopatry, where animals return to their birthplace to breed, may be the most common. The term derives from the Greek roots philo, “liking, loving” and patra, “fatherland”, although in recent years the term has been applied to more than just the animal’s birthplace. Recent usage refers to animals returning to the same area to breed despite not being born there, and migratory species that demonstrate site fidelity: reusing stopovers, staging points, and wintering grounds.

I grew up learning about this – without knowing the term – when I visited salmon fish hatcheries along the inland streams in western Washington State near Seattle. My father enjoyed taking me and my brothers to the hatcheries, to see the fingerlings before they were released into the streams to start their journey to the Pacific Ocean. I learned then that after four or five years of living in lakes and the ocean, the salmon would return to their birthplace to spawn. How they knew exactly where to return was a mystery.

Years later, when I was in high school, I was wading Lake Sammamish – east of Seattle – where Issaquah stream fed into it. I noticed a mature sockeye salmon – bright red in mating color, its dorsal fin knifing the water’s surface like a shark – making a beeline for the mouth of the stream. It bumped into my leg, startling me. I knew from those childhood hatchery visits that it was on the last stages of its long journey from sea to lake to lake to stream and ultimately to the very creek where it began its life, so I jumped out of its way, sorry to add even the smallest additional obstacle. That poor salmon was battered from its arduous journey, skin shedding off, scarred; it looked ghastly and I wondered if it had the strength to complete its journey. When it hit my leg, it had already managed to avoid being eaten by sea lions in Puget Sound, scooped into a gill net or caught on a fishing hook. I had no idea what it might still encounter upstream.

Sockeye salmon must travel from ocean through a lake on their way to finding the creek where they hatched. For the sockeye I encountered, migration included navigating from open sea into Puget Sound, through a set of locks between the sound and Lake Washington by way of a fish ladder, across Lake Washington with all its motorboats and fishermen, up several miles of a narrow slough connecting that lake with Lake Sammamish, across that second lake with more boats and fishermen, to Issaquah Creek (where I got in its way) and finally up the ever-smaller creek branches winding higher into the Cascade foothills, some having barely enough water to cover its body as it flails and struggles against their seaward flows to reach its particular spawning ground.

Whew. And after all that effort migrating and spawning? It dies, within days.

Just amazing.

Sea turtles have a similar reproduction approach, including migration, although the females don’t die after laying their eggs. Sea turtles also have significantly longer lifespans than salmon, living 50 years or more. Still, their journey from hatching on a beach to life in the big ocean, migrating back to that same beach decades later to lay eggs, is just as arduous and amazing as that of a sockeye salmon.

Understanding these life cycles, it’s easy to see how humans have made their already challenging migrations exponentially more difficult with all of our development, pollution and harvesting. It’s a wonder such species have survived our abuses.

So yes, I hope these baby turtles I was privileged to help in my small way from half a globe away survive all of life’s obstacles, natural and human-caused. I hope that some of the females return in 30 years to lay their first clutches of eggs in the same sand where their mother put her eggs and where they began their journey.

I also hope that this bit of beach in the Philippines is visited by female sea turtles next October, and every October to come, restoring nature’s balance. That might require some changes on the part of humans. Micah and Markus, in their initial blog post about the return of the turtle nests, noted that because of the pandemic, tourists had disappeared from the beaches and the villages were quiet. The Wiki article quote above, obviously recently updated, makes a similar observation: “As a result of the COVID-19 virus, human activity on all beaches has virtually ceased, resulting in an increase in sea turtle nesting.” Clearly, human activity on nesting beaches, along with taking sea turtle eggs from the nests for food, has been detrimental to sea turtle populations.

I’m impressed and intrigued, though, that the sea turtles – in the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere – knew 2020 was their year to return to their beaches. How? And so quickly? More proof that we understand so little about the natural world and the creatures we share it with. This winter’s increased nesting demonstrates just how sensitive sea turtles are to human activity around them, and the negative impacts such activity can have on their populations. It seems they’ve learned to avoid humans, with good reason. In that regard, their survival instinct reminds me of wolves. Smart, wary and resilient.

My hope is that with this joyous return of sea turtles to their local beach after such a long absence, the community of villages near Micah and Markus can work together to set aside sea turtle nesting sites, preserves where human activity is restricted, particularly during critical nesting times. It shouldn’t require a pandemic to entice the turtles to return to nest.

However that plays out, later this year, around October or November, I hope to receive an email – more “Turtle Mail” – from Micah and Markus, announcing more turtle nests so that I can sponsor one again. To learn that female sea turtles returned to create nests again would provide hope and make my heart sing.

Best $10 I’ve ever spent.

I’ll end with a beautifully-written portion of Marcus and Micah’s most recent update about the sea turtle babies, published today (February 28, 2021):

Over 6,000 have been released and more nests are hatching every day. We wish you are here to witness it – breathtaking, literally. A small beak, a closed eye, maybe a pair of heads, still and tired from making the climb from under the sand. Magic. Every bit magic.

Feature photo: Pixabay

11 thoughts on “From Snow to Sand: Baby Sea Turtles”

  1. Thank you for an inspiring post. We will share it with the hatchery nurses and with the local village chief who started this project within the community. Many thanks for supporting the turtles. The turtles are already doing their part and all we do is back them up. We will keep going! We cannot thank you enough!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really wonderful! Thank you for being a sponsor. When we lived in Saipan I would take my grandkids to the Bird Island cliff-side around 4pm. We would wait patiently and were always rewarded by sightings of enormous sea-turtles as they would surface below in the warm afternoon tropical waters. This post made me miss home ( Saipan).

    Liked by 1 person

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