Nesting in Paradise
After spending a few weeks on a secluded island in the Capricornia Cays National Park, I feel refreshed by the uninterrupted close contact with nature. Nesting birds and turtles who were mostly undisturbed by our presence, the crystal clear water of the ocean, the abundant sea life and the beautifully unique coral rubble sand.
The Capricornia Cays are located towards the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, which is the worlds largest coral reef and the only living thing on earth that can be seen from space!
The reef in this area was so healthy and alive, so far seemingly unaffected by the ample industry nearby, with brilliant fish snacking on the coral and darting amongst our fingers.
It was not by coincidence that I found myself on an island integral to sea turtle survival - right in the middle of egg-laying/hatching season!
From November through to January, the Green and Loggerhead sea turtles are nesting by the hundreds every night.
Come January through to late March, there are thousands of baby turtles hatching each night and making a frantic dash for the ocean, evolution choosing the path of sacrificing the many for the few.
Laying the eggs
Watching the egg-laying process is fascinating, every step of the way. As you can probably gather, for an animal that spends most of its time in the water, they are not well equipped for land travel. With flippers instead of legs, their egg-laying expedition is beautifully clumsy and is certainly admirable.
Sea turtles need to lay their eggs on land and it is the adult female who is responsible for this task, which is certainly no walk in the park (or swim in the ocean, I should say)!
As the female makes her painfully slow ascent from the ocean up the beach and into the closest tree-cover, she is very sensitive and aware.
As she spends the first twenty or so minutes arduously digging her potential nest, if she is disturbed in any way she will immediately (in turtle time) abandon her nest and return to the ocean to try again somewhere else. This heralds a warning for those lucky enough to be camping nearby, not to shine any bright light, talk loudly or approach the nesting turtle.
If disturbed, the 150+kg turtle will have to make a frustrated retreat back down the beach. As you can probably imagine, this is a very long process.
The thwarted female will then continue to tirelessly search for a tranquil patch of sand in an attempt to lay her eggs. However if she remains unsuccessful in finding a suitable, peaceful place to lay, she will be forced to return to the ocean and drop her eggs, hopefully to try again in a few weeks.
Usually the female will produce enough eggs to lay four to five times a season. The years between each breeding season vary from turtle to turtle with most females only breeding every two to eight years.
Digging the Nest
Supposing, however, that she does find a suitable place, she will dig her nest. She will emphatically toss sand all over the place, digging and digging until she reaches what she deems to be a suitable depth. This depth often seems to be about the average height of one adult turtle.
Then, she will delicately dig an egg chamber, a sandy cylinder dug down as far as her flippers can reach. She sculpts this chamber with her back flippers and is totally blind to what she is doing. Despite this, she manages to dig a worthy hole, the perfect depth and shape. She is pretty committed by this stage and will only abandon the process if highly disrupted or blocked by a stubborn tree root or rock in her digging path. Even then, she might choose to continue to frustratingly paw at that recalcitrant root for hours.
Once the chamber is dug, she will then begin to lay, entering into a trance-like state, laying anywhere from 50 to over 150 eggs in total. For the next 15 minutes or so, while she is laying, she makes no sound. Her body will slowly rock back and forth as she moves the fertile ovum though her system, before depositing the slick, porous eggs. At this point she would seem totally oblivious to anything going on around her.
Once she has finished laying, she begins the laborious process of covering the egg chamber and filling in the hole she has dug. She will do this by gradually edging herself forward, essentially digging a new hole in front, throwing the sand behind her to fill in the original nesting site.
Sometimes these turtles can get totally carried away and end up metres ahead of the actual nest, still throwing sand behind them to fill in the already totally covered hole, before they decide they have done their job!
Keep in mind they still cannot see the nest, so try not to judge them while you giggle at their seeming ineptitude. Some even speculate that she does this intentionally, in order to conceal the location of the eggs.
(That's my tent to the left that she is attempting to dug under!)
Finally having completed her mission, the exhausted female will then begin her slow descent back to the ocean. All this can mean two or more hours out of the water. Sometimes on her journey back to the water the turtle may be unfortunate enough to find herself trapped by logs or even flipped onto her back after trying to scale a log with a too-steep incline.
Turtle researchers will often patrol the beaches during nesting season looking for trapped or upended turtles and make an effort to rescue them from a potentially long and painful demise.
Let the Hatching Begin!
Long after their mother has disappeared back into the ocean, the eggs lay protected in the warm sand. The average incubation period for Green and Loggerhead sea turtle eggs is approximately 2 months.
Curiously, the temperature of the sand itself will be the ultimate determining factor in the sex of each sea-turtle hatchling. Warmer sand temperatures tend to produce more or all female hatchlings, and cooler sand temperatures can produce more or all males. According to one researcher (James R. Spotila), the eggs themselves can sometimes impact this temperature, with eggs in the warmer centre of the batch often forming as females and eggs on the periphery developing with more males.
Another possible obstacle for these hatchlings is that sometimes, the sheer volume of turtles nesting in an area can lead to very condensed nesting sites. This presents a potential risk for a previous nest to be dug up unwittingly by another female, and the eggs haphazardly tossed aside.
Provided that this is not the case, when the embryos have successfully developed, the hatchlings will break free from their eggy enclosures and begin their 2-3 day journey to the surface. They will slowly push up through the sand together, totally blind, relying solely on their instincts.
The Dash For the Sea!
Watching them 'hatch' from the sand is a very curious process, as again they rely on their instincts which tell them that they should travel to the ocean as a group. The hatchlings will slowly push each other up to the surface, remaining totally still once exposed, eyes closed as they wait for the signal.
What the signal is that cues the baby turtles to make a run for it (as a group) is an unknown mystery.
Occasionally one hatchling will break free, perhaps feeling too exposed while waiting for the rest, and makes a premature dash for the ocean, completely ignored by the other baby turtles.
The final chapter in the saga of the sea turtles first steps (flippers?) into the world is perhaps the most confronting and intense.
Unfortunately everything, it seems, loves the taste of baby turtles! It was very uncomfortable to watch the harsh brutality of nature when some turtles decided to crawl from their sandy hideaway for the ocean in broad daylight. On this particular day it was close to dark – but not close enough. The usual distance the hatchlings have to race is often no more than 20 metres, but when you are so incredibly delicious, this is 20 metres too many while in plain sight.
The seagulls are the first on the scene, swooping down to snatch up a turtle each, followed closely by hungry crabs and dingoes. Then, if any of the young turtles are lucky enough to make it to the water, the sharks await.
Often, only about one out of every thousand actually survives long enough for their chance to mate or lay, 10 to 30 or so years later. These sea turtles imprint on the beach where they hatch and it is not uncommon for them to travel thousands of kilometres to return to the very same beach to lay their own clutch of eggs. For some of these turtles, it will be the first time they have returned to that particular beach since they were hatchlings.
Because of this imprinting, for anyone lucky enough to be visiting an area where the turtles are laying, it is strongly advised not to interfere with the hatching process. Even if it means watching 99 out of 100 hatchlings be devoured by the beaks of hungry seagulls.
A Journey's end...Or Just the Beginning...?
So you might be reading this thinking something like “So, how do any of these poor animals ever survive any stage in this entire process??” That, my friend, is a great question. But somehow, they do. Sea turtles certainly do remind us of just how lucky we are to have all the support that we do to survive. They might also provoke us to think of how unique we all are, in our journeys and adventures.
Another thing I personally find myself pondering when watching those gigantic females propel themselves up the beach with heavy determination, is the significance of our birthplaces and what kind of connection we forge with the land where we were born.
This experience was such a magical and unforgettable moment in time. After witnessing such feats of nature I couldn't help but feel connected to these great animals and the land we inhabit. I was inspired to think about my own individual responsibility as a human living on this planet. I found myself pondering ways in which I can make a positive change in my lifestyle to positively impact the environment, and peacefully coexist with the other animals that live here too.
I hope by reading this blog that you are also feeling inspired and motivated to learn more about these beautiful creatures and what we can do to support them!
Love sea turtles? Here is a bit more information about their plight and what we can do to help:
One of the greatest threats to hatchlings is light pollution near nesting sites.
As most baby turtles are birthed from the sand at night, the light from nearby campsites, houses and buildings can be very confusing for the young turtles and as a result they may crawl towards the light instead of the ocean. Please be aware if you are camping or living in an area where sea turtles are nesting, and investigate the best way to look after our beloved sea-faring friends!
Green sea turtles are dwindling in numbers every year and are now listed as an endangered species worldwide. These majestic animals use the warm beaches of over 80 countries worldwide for their nesting ground!
Some things that we can all do to help save our valuable sea turtles:
Find out when nesting season is for your local area and minimize beachfront lighting (including campfires) during that time.
Use environmentally friendly soaps.
Celebrate events without releasing balloons and properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake the remains of balloons, plastic bags or other forms of trash as food, and as a result they may suffer from a slow painful death when such items inhibit their digestion.
Leave the tracks of turtles undisturbed, researchers use them to identify the species and number of turtles nesting. They may also use these tracks to mark nesting sites for protection.
Don't interrupt nesting or hatching turtles.
If you live in an area where turtles nest, keep an eye out for distressed turtles on your morning walk. If you see a trapped turtle call the nearest animal caretaker or national park ranger (if applicable).
Be conscious of trash (especially plastic) around beachfront areas, perhaps get a few people together and go collecting!
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle!
Here are some links to the resource material used when researching this article: