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Volunteers work to rescue baby sea turtles along the Alabama coast.

Lynn Oldshue

It’s more than tourists flocking to Alabama’s beaches during the summer. This is also prime time for endangered sea turtles are crawling ashore on the Gulf Coast and laying hundreds of eggs. Marine biologists say this is the same spot where many of these turtles hatched years ago. Volunteers Alabama’s Sea Turtle Conservation program known as Share The Beach, watch this turtle activity. They also work to reduce the human-related impacts on the nesting and hatching season

“We want to look for crawl tracks and see if she nested. This area of disturbed sand indicates that she nested. So now we're going to process,” said Share the Beach Executive Director Sara Johnson. She’s explaining how the morning’s eight-and-a-half mile turtle patrol will go.

Lynn Oldshue

Her 11-year-old daughter, Audrey, and a group of volunteers are seated in an All Terrain Vehicle. Johnson pulls away from the Dauphin Island West End parking lot just before dawn. The sky is pinkish gray until the sun burns through the haze. There’s no wind, the Gulf is calm, and the air is hot. Not far from the parking lot, Johnson stops to pick up a toy balloons filled with helium left by visitors on the shoreline.

“All the time. Around Mother's Day we'll come back with 12 or 15 balloons on one run,” observes Johnson

The balloons are considered bad news for nesting turtles. They’re among the trash volunteers pick up to clear the way for incoming turtles. Johnson says it’s part of the daily morning patrols by almost 450 Share the Beach volunteers who monitor south Alabama, mostly by foot.

Lynn Oldshue

This morning’s patrol has two goals. One is to document new nests, and to check nests that should have already hatched. Johnson says the first signs of a new nest are the turtle flipper tracks from water’s edge to the dunes. The turtle uses her front flippers to dig a body pit and her back flippers to dig out the egg cavity. The eggs incubate for about two months. Since nests on Dauphin Island hatch earlier, volunteers start monitoring the nests on the 50th day.

The job of processing includes measuring the width of the crawl tracks to estimate the turtle’s size. Another task is recording how big the nest is and where it is. Johnson says this alternating crawl pattern with swirls and uneven flipper marks indicates it was a loggerhead turtle. Volunteers look for disturbed sand to find the nest.

“So she came in from this side,” observed Johnson. “It looks like she started to sort of body pit over there because there's a little bit of pushed out sand, but not much. The nest itself is going to be in this area. The nest is difficult to find because she chucked sand everywhere.”

The sand is soft where the turtle scoops and flings it all around. The sand gets harder closer to the eggs. This particular turtle crawled deeper into the dunes. That makes her nest harder to find. Johnson explains that turtles have poor vision on land and are guided by the brightest light source. Ideally, that is sand on the horizon or light reflecting on the water of an undeveloped beach, but that is getting harder to find.

Lynn Oldshue

“So, on a natural beach with no development, the brightest source of white light on that beach is going to be the reflection of the horizon over the water. Stars reflecting off the water creates white light. Houses produce far greater white light. And so their instinct is to go toward the brightest light source because that should be the water,” Johnson explained,

The patrol finally finds the nest and digs deep enough to verify the turtle eggs inside. They are perfectly round and look like ping pong balls. Using stakes and mallets, the patrol puts a screen over the nest to keep out foxes and other predators. They also mark off the nest and post a bright yellow sign that reads “Do Not Disturb Sea Turtle Nest” and the nest is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“How are you this morning?” Johnson asks 83 year old Mario Diaz.

“I am fine,” he responds.

“We have processed two so far this morning. You've probably seen where we've left a mess. Two of them already? We're not even halfway down,” Johnson adds.

On this morning’s patrol, Johnson also checks several nests that are getting closer to hatching. She also looks for signs of any predators looking to snack on the hatchlings. Another clue baby turtles growing inside their eggs. There’s also a depression in the center of the nest. That’s a sign that the baby turtles are working to dig their way out. Johnson also sticks a stethoscope into the sand to listen for activity.

Lynn Oldshue

“I might have some really, really deep sounds, but it's hard to tell,” Johnson said.

Johnson explains that a turtle may lay up to six hundred eggs over a summer. But, nesting is cyclical and a busy season like this one could be followed by a slower one.

The same turtle will go two to three years between nesting. She'll nest four or five times in a season, and then she'll have a recovery period,” she said.

Volunteers process three new nests and listen to several more during this morning’s patrol. They then load their all-terrain vehicle for the trip back. Johnson asks if they want to excavate the last nest or leave it for the next shift. Excavation includes opening the eggs that didn’t hatch. Johnson says foxes had gotten into the nest before volunteers got there. The nest was also washed over by the tide and there will probably be a larger number of unhatched eggs.

“So what does everyone want to do?” Johnson asks the group. “There's a possibility that there are still some hatchlings in there, if that affects anyone's opinion. I want to see a baby. Let’s do it.”

Seeing a hatchling is on volunteer Brigette Hall’s bucket list. She hopes this will be her lucky day. Johnson stops driving when she sees the tiny turtle tracks going into the water.

“Guys, we got a baby!” Johnson exclaims. “We're going to get this guy to the water because it's too hot. Oh, there's another one coming out. This thing's hatching right now.”

Lynn: The black hatchlings that are crawling out of the nest and heading to water are Kemp’s Ridley turtles. They’re the most seriously endangered type of turtle that visits the Alabama coast.. Johnson said their last Kemp’s Rildley nest was two years ago.

“Three Nests, a false crawl and hatching in one morning and I could not be happier about it,” said Johnson.

Lynn Oldshue is a reporter for Alabama Public Radio.
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