Baby turtles on beach teach a lesson for mankind

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 23, 2012 

DAVID LAUDERDALE, STAFF PHOTO

A walk on the beach shouldn't be a matter of life and death.

And it wasn't for me and the little black puppy as we explored the shore of Port Royal Sound on our morning walk.

But we did stumble into a matter of life and death. It was jarring because it seemed to have happened in a single breath.

We found the soft, leathery remains of two white eggshells. Near the shells lay the motionless bodies of two baby turtles. As soon as the little turtles had come into this world, they left it.

Experts tell me they were diamondback terrapins.

On the Maryland Eastern Shore, they're known as the state reptile. They are a University of Maryland mascot, associated with the "Fear The Turtle" warning at ball games.

Here in the Lowcountry, they're known as cooters and are associated with cooter soup.

The puppy was interested in one of the eggshells for a couple of seconds.

Some varmint will be interested in the baby turtles, no doubt. In the morning, we may find a clean slate of sand.

I don't know why fully formed turtles the size of quarters died so soon.

It's a miracle when turtles we call loggerheads, leatherbacks and diamondbacks survive to lay eggs in the sand -- often the same sand where they had incubated and clawed their way into life.

Nanci Polk-Weckhorst began watching loggerhead turtle nests on Hilton Head Island in the late 1970s. She rode her bicycle up and down the beach to subtly mark the nests, documenting what became of them. She marked them subtly because in those days the most common poachers were people. Some people rode the beaches at night on horseback, harvesting sea turtle eggs to be sold in bars as aphrodisiacs.

If that didn't get the turtles, raccoons, ghost crabs, ants, wild dogs or maybe even a fungus would. And that's before they even made it to the ocean. Their spirit and determination teach valuable lessons, even in death.

The babies come into the world and they head for the moonlight over the water. If houses, hotels and condos are full of bright lights, the babies go the wrong way.

Polk-Weckhorst said it's not really sad to see little turtles like we saw. What's sad, she said, is to find one exhausted because it went the wrong way thanks to mankind, and half-alive because it doesn't have the energy to crawl when placed near water's edge.

Sally R. Murphy of Sheldon spent the better part of her career helping save the imperiled sea turtles. I asked her what she thought when she saw little turtles that did not make it.

"When little turtles didn't make it because of nature, I thought, 'That is evolution at work,' " she said. "When little turtles didn't make it because of humans, I thought, 'The creatures of the earth don't stand a chance.' "

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