Noa Baldonado doesn't come across as a hero.
The fifth-grader at Hilton Head Island Elementary speaks softly, occasionally pausing between sentences to brush back his dark bangs.
But when confronted with a crisis last week, the 11-year-old demonstrated a fierce tenacity that seems at odds with his gentle demeanor.
Walking toward the beach near his Hilton Head Plantation home late Thursday, Noa noticed an unusual number of gulls hovering overhead.
When he reached the shore, he understood why. Horseshoe crabs, as many as 500 of them, were stranded on the rocky coast, an easy meal for the hungry birds."I didn't want them to suffer and die," he explains. "It's like a dog passing away; a horseshoe crab is still an animal."
He began scrambling along the coastline, bounding over rocks and debris to gather the crabs -- wrapping his arms around four or five of them at a time -- and tossing them back into Port Royal Sound.
He soon enlisted his mother, Kristine Cox, smiling as he recalled her initial reluctance to touch the menacing-looking creatures.
"She was kind of freaked out," Noa said.
He worked for several hours until nightfall Thursday and rose early Friday to help the few hundred that remained.
By then, he'd also solicited the help of Amy Tressler, supervisor of educational programs at the Coastal Discovery Museum, who had taught his class about horseshoe crabs during a field trip a few weeks earlier.
She arrived to help Friday morning and was surprised and humbled by Noa's dedication.
"It's wonderful to see a student work so hard with no promise of reward," she said.
"The crabs are usually pretty scary to people, since they're sort of prehistoric-looking. Watching him that morning was one of the most validating experiences I've ever had in my career."
The crabs probably were moving toward shore to spawn and were stranded when the tide receded, according to Phil Maier, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"This time of year, they move into the shallows to spawn at night, usually during a new or full moon," Maier said.
He said it's not unusual for some to become stranded, but he hadn't heard of them washing ashore in the numbers Noa encountered.
Noa can't hide his pride at saving so many lives. "I think a lot of people might not have cared," he says. But he doesn't see his actions as brave.
"I was just determined to save them, that's all," he said.
Did he think the experience would prompt him to pursue a career in marine biology?
"Actually, I want to be an animation artist," he professes, before pausing.
"But if that doesn't work out ... " he finally says, trailing off and beaming.
- New Coastal Discovery program introduces students of all ages to wonders of horseshoe crab, April 23, 2011