Darkness still ruled the world as I set out in my truck to drive the beach. Living in one of the most unique coastal communities in North America, driving the beach like this is a fact of life. There are no roads. There is only sand. The beach is our highway, our commute. Watching the sun rise up over the Atlantic Ocean, the dorsal fins of bottlenose dolphin crest the surface of the water, the swash of the waves roll in – these are the accompanying images of my morning routine. Sure does beat beltway traffic.
This particluar morning the tide was higher than normal. With that said though, we were right on the heals of Hurricane Irene here along the Outer Banks and so the ocean was still piled up high against our coastline. During the summer months, these abnormally high tides can often bring prehistoric visitors to our beaches in the night. Utilizing the exceptionally high tides to help propel their bodies as far up the beach as the ocean will allow, sea turtles lay their eggs all up down the beach of the Outer Banks. As luck would have it, this would happen right in front of me.
The most common of the sea turtles is the loggerhead, or Caretta carretta. Green sea turtles and leatherbacks will make their appearence along our wind swept beaches from time to time but it is the loggerhead that makes up the lions share of our turtle population here for which the Outer Banks serves as a very important part of their total nesting habitat. Even though the number of loggerhead nests that we see here pales in comparison to other places such as Bald Head Island or Jupiter Beach, the Outer Banks is the farthest north that these turtles will typically nest. This is profoundly important because sea turtles are reptiles and therefore ectothermic – meaning, they control their body temperatures by the temperature around them. Seeing how that the Outer Banks is the northern extend of their nesting grounds, this means that the temperature of the sand here on our beaches will be quite different than the sand in Florida. Thus, the Outer Banks produces an estimated 90% of the males in the entire loggerhead sea turtle population. Pretty cool huh?
Its really quite unusual to find one of these girls hauled out on the beach during daylight hours. Sea turtle eggs and hatchlings are a delicacy for scavengers and carnivores the world over. Thus it is in the turtles best interest to come ashore, lay, and then hide her nest under the cloak of darkness. Realistically, out of the hundred or so eggs that will be laid, there may be one or two of these turtles that will survive until maturity. And for a loggerhead, this take a really long time. Its ironic that the largest turtle on Earth, which is also considered to be the largest wild reptiles on Earth – the leatherback – matures and breeds at the age of 4. Loggerheads on the other hand reach maturity around 34! This is one of the reasons that these turtles are endangered now. Any species that is long lived and takes a long time to mature has a very difficult time surviving in the face of Western Civilization.
Another irony at work here is that although every sea turtle on Earth is considered to be endangered, those species that breed primarily in third world nations such as the green, kemps riddly, hawksbill, and leatherback are all beginning to make a come back. The loggerhead on the other hand nests primarily along the southeast coast of the United States and has suffered at 40% decline in its population since the 1980s. Interesting how that we demand that these other countries curtail their industries that were decimating their sea turtle populations and available nesting beaches, while here back in the States, we have yet to effectively handle our own problems.