I’m on ‘Turtle Time’

A baby sea turtle makes his way to the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna Michaux

A baby sea turtle makes his way to the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna Michaux

By Donna V. Michaux

In the wee hours of the full moon, I wake to the bright night flooding me in brilliant moonlight. I can clearly see the marsh and hear the melodic waves of Oak Island’s beach music pulling on my primal soul. I feel connected to the mighty and unassuming sea turtles and feel that they must sense this same primeval sensation that has endured for them for over 250 million years. I am the “Turtle Lady,” but my journey started in my youth when my mother ignited the spark of scientific curiosity in me.

INSPIRING AN ACTIVIST

My mother says when I was 5 years old, I would study the Life magazine issue on the Galápagos Islands over and over. Eighteen years later, during my senior year at Queens College in Charlotte, NC, I made my only dream come true by organizing a school trip to the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. What is just as amazing is that my mother, after finding that certain Life magazine so many years later, gave me the 1960 issue prior to my trip. She is a visionary and knew the magazine would drive my life’s journeys and adventures.

The Galápagos Islands, which means Tortoise Islands in Spanish, are where Charles Darwin visited in 1831 and developed his theories of evolution and “survival of the fittest.” These islands are located off the west coast of Ecuador on the equator.

The islands are enchanted and visiting them is like stepping back into time just after the dinosaurs—where else can you swim with the penguins and fur seals as tropical flamingos watch you from the beach? Where else are wild sea lions not afraid of you as you scratch them behind their ears and flippers? Mockingbirds land in your hands full of water as they eagerly drink on these rugged volcanic islands. Marine iguanas endemic to the area, and the only saltwater lizard on planet Earth, bask in the sun. Dragons shoot out salt from their desalination glands in their noses and then slip into the cold Humboldt Current waters to graze on algae.

And, yes, the mighty Galápagos tortoise stares you down with a mouth full of grasses. Turtles can live over 100 years and are the oldest living animals on Earth. They were once so plentiful, legend tells, that sailors could walk to land, tortoise back to tortoise back!

It is truly a biologist’s dream to visit this amazing section of the world. After visiting the Galápagos Islands, I have had to create new dreams to accomplish!

After graduating from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a chemistry minor, I began my first job on Andros Island in the Bahamas as a marine biologist and dive master. I would introduce the tropical environment to high-school and college students and PhD researchers as they came down to dive the world’s third largest barrier reef off the largest Bahamian Island. We explored near the Tongue of the Ocean, a deep oceanic trench nearby. We would dive in virgin reef areas, and it would always be a delight to witness the majestic sea turtles. They come in all sizes, from ones that could fit in your kitchen sink to being as large as a small skiff. In the water, they are as streamline and agile as an Olympic swimmer, but on land, they move at the pace of a snail.

After two years of tropical-island living and the expiration of my work permit, I realized I am an “island gal.” I obtained my master of public health in environmental sciences and engineering from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and continued my quest for island living.

FIRST ENCOUNTERS

I met my “knight in shining armor,” John Michaux, while living at Wrightsville Beach and working in Southport. When we were visiting Bald Head Island, I had my first life-changing experience with the loggerhead sea turtles. This was in 1983 when there were not any formalized “turtle programs.” We witnessed a turtle boil—when all of the hatchlings in a nest come out at the same time—while walking on the beach at night and soaking up the magical moonlight. The next day, I went back to the area and intuitively dug into the nest very carefully, though I don’t know why or how I knew to do that.  (In today’s turtle procedures, the nests are excavated 72 hours after a turtle boil.)

Unbelievably, I dug up a lonely, stranded, two-inch hatchling that would have probably perished if I hadn’t dug two feet into the sand to rescue her—and that secured my love for turtles. I became a vocal and dedicated ambassador for their survival.

BECOMING OAK ISLAND’S “TURTLE LADY”

After John and I got married, we were owners and operators of Carolina Cape Divers out of the Southport Yacht Basin. We would take divers out on the “Sea Queen” for a day full of wild adventure above and below the waterline. It was always a delight to observe the sea turtles sleeping with their heads locked into the shipwrecks underwater.

The turtles can stay submerged for over five hours but then have to come up to the surface for a breath of air. This is where they sometimes encounter boats and get hit in the carapace (shell) or heads. This can be deadly for the turtles, and all eight species worldwide are either threatened or endangered. It is fortunate that we have the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island to help with medical sea-turtle emergencies.

The days of diving on the weekends came to a screeching halt when I found out I was pregnant, once at 40 and again at 42! I am a late bloomer but now adopt nests every year on Oak Island for the Junior Beach Club and engage our youth in environmental awareness. I am so proud of my son and daughter, John Macon and Savanna, as they assist me with my Turtle Talks and turtle-nest responsibilities. They are imprinting their experiences on Oak Island’s beaches and creating wonderful memories to last them a lifetime.

I have been working as a volunteer with Oak Island’s Sea Turtle Protection Program for over 25 years. Kellie Beeson is currently the Program Director and has a very dedicated and professional staff to assist her. They are a real asset to the Town of Oak Island and conduct quality programs in all of their activities.

BIRTH OF A SPECIES

Every summer I learn something new from sea turtles. One thing is definitely for sure: Baby turtles are on turtle time! They hatch on their terms and everything else is subject to change and can be different from night to night. I have so many wonderful, magical memories connected to sea turtles. I also have many “turtle friends” that have been bonded by moonlit beach sessions as we stand guard over our adopted nests. I have met people from all over the world that come and wait by the runway we have built to direct the hatchlings to the ocean. It is back to the basics and truly enchanting. Everything slows down; you get to sit and talk and wait for one of life’s primordial events with the stars overhead and the consistent crashing of waves in the background.

From birth, sea turtles have a difficult life! First, females have to survive for over 20 years to mature to be able to lay eggs. Scientists think that at birth, the female hatchlings imprint on the sand and return to the beaches where they were born to lay their eggs. Currently, there is DNA testing being conducted with sea turtle eggs to shed knowledge on the reptile, which has been on this planet since before the dinosaurs. Male sea turtles never return to land once they crawl to the ocean.

Sea turtle hatchlings are guided to the cresting waves by a line of volunteers.  Photo by Donna Michaux

Sea turtle hatchlings are guided to the cresting waves by a line of volunteers. Photo by Donna Michaux

After the adult female turtle finds a suitable nest location above the high-tide line, she digs a two-foot-deep nest with her back flippers. If a shark has eaten her back flipper, this is a huge problem. Also, if she has to dig through sea oat roots or rocks, this can be a limiting factor in achieving the proper depth for egg incubation. Turtle habitat destruction is also a problem with oceanfront development.

She lays approximately 100 semi-permeable, ping-pong-ball-size eggs. During this process, the mother sea turtle appears to be crying. (If I were laying 100 eggs, I’d be crying too!) But, this is simply nature’s way of keeping her eyes moist while on land and washing away the sand that invades them. Then she covers up the nest and heads back to the water.

This process takes approximately two hours. Predators such as foxes, raccoons, ghost crabs—and, in some parts of the world, humans—are waiting to eat her eggs. If she is scared during the process of nest building, she will leave the beach without laying her eggs. This is called a false crawl. It is thought that females lay two to three nests per summer and then take the next summer off, but again, this is subjective.

After the female is successful in laying her eggs, the eggs incubate for approximately 55 to 60 days. The temperature of the sand determines the sex of the turtles! For North Carolina, the pivotal temperature is 84.65 degrees Fahrenheit. Sand temperatures above that produce females, and below that, males are produced. So, hot females and cool males!

The hatchlings begin using teamwork and crawl upward through the sand to the top of the nest. A scout usually sticks his head out of the sand, and when some invisible signal is given, the turtles all “boil” and come out at the same time heading toward light. “Safety in numbers” keeps them emerging until the majority of hatchlings have crawled to the water.

I have a “moon” person stand in the water with a flashlight to help direct the turtles to the ocean. They are using their instincts and headed to moonlight reflected on the water. But, if no one is there to assist the hatchlings, they can head in the dunes toward a beach-front house’s porch light. I have come to check on a nest before and had hatchlings run over by cars as they headed in the wrong direction!

We cannot carry the babies to the sea. The turtles have to make the trek to the ocean on their own. This helps develop their flipper muscles as well as their lungs to prepare them for a 48-hour swim frenzy to deep water. They are headed to the Sargasso Sea where they can hide and thrive in the floating sea weed. But there are daily survival stresses. Long-line and gill-net fishing, shrimping and boating, water pollution, garbage that mimics food sources (plastic bags look like jellyfish), habitat destruction, and beach-front developments are sources for the decline in the sea-turtle population.

This is why I feel the internal drive to give Turtle Talks to educate the local and tourist populations as well as to increase the awareness of our youth. It is interesting to see a grown man sheepishly put away his cell phone at night on the beach when my daughter says, “Sir, please put up your cell phone. It is too bright and might distract a hatchling.” It is not uncommon to have over 200 fascinated, anxiously awaiting people waiting on a nest to boil. Then, I am more concerned about crowd control and protecting the turtles from being stepped on!

Once the turtles get in the water, the waves wash them back onto the beach and it is very easy to accidently step on the cute little babies. On all my turtle experiences, the participants have been very respectful and put “turtles first,” as we say. They have had to take mental pictures in their “mind’s eye” for life-changing memories, because we cannot use flash photography.

THEY’RE ON TURTLE TIME

In July 2012, one of my assigned nests was Nest #5 (they are given a number in chronological order of the time they are laid). I had a depression in the sand over the nest on day 56. This is an indication that there is activity occurring in the nest and the hatchlings are tunneling through the sand to the surface.

My children and Stephanie Jones’ family and mother slept on the beach all night taking shifts to watch the nest and protect it from predators. We have had to shoo foxes and ghost crabs away with brooms in prior years! It was a beautiful

night, yet at 4 a.m. insects started hopping all over me—I couldn’t even react, I was so tired. Alas, all this, and no turtle hatchlings appeared.

The next night, we had a scout come out at 8:30 p.m. and at 10:30 p.m. One high and mighty hatchling promenaded all the way down the runway safely to the water. It was the first nest to hatch on Oak Island, which is unusual. One would think nests one through four would hatch before number five, which is what typically happens—but Turtle Time prevails!

The next night at 8:30 p.m. a scout came out, and at 10:30 p.m., 74 hatchlings boiled and we safely saw them to the water. The unusual thing about this night was that it was a new moon, which means there was no moon. We used the flashlights to direct the hatchlings safely to the water because it was pitch black.

Everyone was excited and talking with their flashlights on. About 20 minutes later, I noticed hatchlings all over the beach! Then I realized that it was so dark with no moonlight, that our flashlights had brought them back onto the beach. They are that sensitive to light.

So, we turned off our lights and turned on red lights. Turtles can’t see the red-light wave, but we can. We got them back into the water safely for the second time.

On the third night, a scout came out, and 18 hatchlings were safely escorted to the water. We learned from the previous night’s situation and turned off all white lights after the hatchlings met the ocean.

This whole nest was unusual since normally all the hatchlings boil together on one night. We excavated this nest on the fourth day of hatching and, unbelievably, had 39 live hatchlings trapped in the nest walls. That nest produced 132 hatchlings, and they each raced on to their life’s journey. This nest was definitely on its own strict Turtle Time schedule as the nest boiled at 10:30 p.m. three nights in a row.

FOR THE LOVE OF TURTLES

My other nest, #62, was due later in the season in August 2012. Normally, the nests are laid in May and the last nests are hatched in October, depending on weather and storms. This nest was due on a full moon, which was great. I have observed that the power of the moon on a turtle is greater than the lunar tidal gravity fluctuations: On another turtle-nest-hatching experience with a full moon, the turtles would emerge when the moon came out behind the clouds, then stop if the clouds covered up the light. This continued until 4 a.m.! It was dead low tide by that time and the hatchlings had a long way to get to the water’s edge, but they all made it under my guidance.

On the 55th day for nest #62, there was a wedding being conducted on the beach right beside the nest. I was shocked when I went down to the nest at sunset to “set up camp.”

The bride and groom were from Ohio.  After the wedding, I convinced the father of the bride to turn off the beach-house lights directly behind the nest and to use romantic candlelight instead. There was a wedding party of over 100 eating supper on tables set up behind the dunes. So, it was really special when at 9 p.m., the scout emerged and all the wedding party plus about 100 other beach walkers lined the runway to the water’s edge.

They were all respectful and I was so impressed that no one took flash photos. At 10:30 p.m., we had 78 hatchlings conduct a text-book boil—it was absolutely the best one I have ever observed. I had the bride and groom up by the nest, so they witnessed the whole turtle-boil event. They realized the special significance of seeing this occur on their wedding night, which I’m sure for them will always be a memorable highlight. Everyone there was positively affected and enamored with the purest of events: the birth of a threatened species in which they actively participated.

When the baby turtles stop in their tracks and look up at you, they appear to trust you and thank you for ensuring their safety as they flipper their way to an uncertain and unknown future. Maybe we should learn from sea turtles as they have the basics for survival: food, water, and shelter; and that they move slowly to get to their destination. We should be reminded of life’s simple pleasures and that the journey is our destination—on Turtle Time.

Donna V. Michaux is currently a physical education teacher at Southport Elementary where she brings science to the gym. She creates Turtle Track Pottery, for sale at Southport’s Maritime Museum and Edwards Gallery, which exhibits her passion and inspiration that she gets from the marine life in the Cape Fear waters. Please contact her (donna@michaux.com) if you would like to host a Turtle Talk to increase local knowledge and awareness of these majestic and unassuming reptiles.

5 Responses to I’m on ‘Turtle Time’

  1. David Hylton says:

    I would like to obtain further information about the Sea Turtle program on Oak Island. Though I am a handicapped Veteran, it is possible I may be able to volunteer for SOMETHING. At least this is my desire. I’d surely view a ‘turtle boil’ as a most memorable event, one might be lucky enough to witness, even once in their lifetimes. If there is any printed information available, this would certainly be preferable.

    • admin says:

      Hi David! Thank you so much for reading, and thank you for your interest in helping the sea turtles! Head to this link for info on the available programs in our area: http://www.southportmag.com/work-with-the-sea-turtles/

      There’s even a turtle festival this Saturday, May 4th (info at the link) to celebrate the first crawl of the season! If you do volunteer, please be sure to e-mail us a photo at bethany@southportmag.com. We’d love to see good work in action!

      Thanks again,
      Bethany Turner
      Editor

  2. Pat Fulcher says:

    Is there a way to watch a turtle boil if in Oak Island during a full moon? There is suppose to be the biggest full moon of the year toward the end of June.

  3. Lindsay Haire says:

    Hey, my name is Lindsay and I am a senior at Anson County Early College, and my question for you is can I do an interview with your through email about sea turtles. I am doing my senior project on sea turtles because when I was at the beach I experienced the sea turtles hatching and I decided I wanted to do my senior project on it. So if you do not mind email and let me ask a couple of questions. Thanks Lindsay!!!!

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