Momma Loggerhead huffed a barely audible snort as she stopped to rest in a pool left by the receding tide. This was the price of her tardiness. Had she arrived on the Fripp Island beach closer to peak high tide, she would have had a shorter crawl to her nesting spot and a shorter trip back to the surf after depositing her precious cargo.
But she missed the crest by about two hours, and now, at nearly 1 a.m. she had an extra 50 yards or so of beach to lug her barnacled shell across.
It was exhausting work, but a lovely night for it. The full “super moon” that arrived just head of high tide was still washing the beach and breakers in light. The turtle was moving like ... well ... a turtle, so I probably could have whipped out the iPhone and taken a crisp photo even without the flash.
But I kept it holstered.
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Even the ambient light from the display screen could be enough to disorient the turtle along her staccato march back to sea, Janie Lackman of the Fripp Island Turtle Team explained. Not wanting to upset my host or harm this fascinating hulk, I subdued my itchy shutter finger.
So there are no pictures here of what I saw Saturday night/Sunday morning.
I can’t show you the malformed left rear flipper that made the digging of the nest and the trudge back to the water awkward and laborious for Momma Loggerhead. Nor can I show you the mess she made of her too-shallow nest, nor Janie’s deft gathering of the eggs that brimmed over the hole and scattered as Momma Loggerhead tried to cover them. Janie knelt behind the turtle, out of her line of vision, hands and nest glowing by the beam of a flashlight with a red lens. Several people out for a romantic stroll under the full moon stopped to watch the eggs drop — the byproduct of amorous turtles, I suppose. Janie paused occasionally to wave them away from Momma Loggerhead’s line of sight, or to whisper explanations of this spectacle.
The scene plays out dozens of times, if not hundreds, on Beaufort County beaches between May and August. Full moons are particularly popular times to lay eggs — and to watch them being laid, for that matter.
That’s why my wife and I were on the beach again at this late hour, despite haven risen at 5 o’clock that morning so we could be on the Fripp beach by 6:30 a.m. Janie, who met my wife, Debi, when both took the LowCountry Institute’s Master Naturalist class for teachers this year, invited us out to watch a morning patrol.
And that I was able to photograph. You can see some of the stills in the accompanying video about the activity that morning — relocating a nest that was deposited in a less-than-ideal spot on the island’s north end.
The walks take place in the morning for several reasons. It’s cool, so relocated eggs don’t get a chance to fry in the heat. Also, there are fewer people on the beach, although the Fripp Island Turtle Team does not treat onlookers as nuisances; to the contrary, volunteers invite an audience because explaining what they do is part of their mission.
But mostly, the morning is good because loggerheads typically lay late at night, and the volunteers have a 12-hour window to relocate eggs deposited in less-than-prime real estate. If they wait any longer, the young reach a development stage at which the jostling will almost certainly prevent them from hatching, Janie explains.
Relocation is a meticulous operation. The egg chamber is located by poking a stick into the sand — which sounds indelicate, however, the touch must be deft to avoid piercing the eggs. Once discovered, the eggs cannot be rotated and must remain on the plane in which they were laid in the nest. They must also must be counted — once as they are removed, and again as they are redeposited. That data, along with measurements of nesting loggerheads and egg-shell samples for DNA testing, are reported to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which tries to track the turtles’ migratory, mating and birthing patterns, as well as their overall health.
Loggerheads might deposit eggs two or three times a season after reaching sexual maturity at about age 20. They usually lay about 120 eggs in a nest, but nest No. 33 — the one Debi and I helped relocate — contained 143. The ghost crabs had gotten into the nest before the volunteers arrived that morning — in fact, Janie was startled when one zoomed out of its hole as she dug in the sand searching for the eggs — so there were four broken eggs, two of which were placed in large vials and saved for DNR’s research.
Our work completed — well, their work, actually — Debi and I returned home for the afternoon but returned that evening to walk the beach with Janie, who practically lives on the beach during the summer, soothing her insomnia with these nighttime vigils. After an hour or so, we’d seen none of the tell-tale tracks of a “crawl,” and Debi and I decided to head home. We had just passed through the security gate, a little past 11 p.m., when Janie called to say she had found a turtle up in the dunes.
We had to whip it around.
Between us, we have lived on the coast more than 50 years, but neither of us had ever seen a mother loggerhead deposit her eggs. Passing back through the gate about two hours later, for the third time that day, I knew how Momma Loggerhead must have felt — tired, but satisfied.