We left home for Bald Head Island under an invasion of gnats. They started turning up in the master bathroom, and it got to the point where I was killing a dozen or more a day. The slaughter was not traumatic for me in any way. The gnats were slow, unthreatening. You could close your hand around them or — my preferred method — wait for one to land and crush it neatly under a fingertip. If one alit in the sink, you might end its existence with a splash.
I didn’t think of the gnats again until we were well ensconced on Bald Head, until we saw the baby sea turtles.
Like many of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Bald Head’s beaches are significant nesting ground for sea turtles. They come ashore in the spring and dig an eighteen-inch-deep hole with their hind legs, then cover it, leaving one or two hundred eggs to fate. When they hatch two months later, the baby turtles make a manic dash for the water, presuming predators haven’t dug up the eggs first. And that the hatchlings didn’t follow houselights to distraction. And that the birds didn’t get them.
This is where humans enter the equation. During nesting season, volunteers managed by the Bald Head Conservancy patrol the beaches to monitor egg laying. When they locate a nest, they put a wire cage around it with a do-not-disturb sign.
For the five years we’ve been going to Bald Head — always during the summer hatching season — we’ve seen many marked nests. This year we noted two right by the beach path nearest our rental house. As we always do, we paused to examine them the first day. The sign, the broad-spaced wire, the sand — all were as nondescript and inauspicious as they always appeared.
Then, one early evening, I was drinking a cocktail and gazing past the rushes toward the ocean when some kind of fuss arose on the beach. I stared dumbly, trying to make sense of it. Was this a party — a wedding? A few people had on the same color green. What were they wearing? What was that about?
The sliding door opened behind me and my wife stepped out. “What’s going on?”
“I’m trying to figure it out myself. Beach party?”
Someone pulled up in a golf cart — the main mode of island transportation — and rushed down the path without pause. Another person arrived. Then another.
“Oh,” my wife declared. “The turtles!”
We notified our group and hit the beach with drinks in hand.
Sure enough, a crowd had formed by one of the nests. The green T-shirts were the volunteers. They had dug a trench from nest to water, to facilitate things. A hundred people or more lined the trench, some sitting, others standing. There was an air of celebration: kids performing cartwheels in the sand, playing frisbee. Still, a cartful of teenage girls road right by, oblivious.
I sidled up to the group of people beside the nest. A volunteer explained that they knew the eggs had hatched because the sand had collapsed, forming a crater about six inches deep. But the only sign of life was a single lump of uneven sand in the crater. It may have moved while I was looking. Then again, maybe not.
A volunteer told everyone to keep the noise down. Amazingly, people complied, though there were whispered conversations.
My nephew, with all the ingenuousness of a five year old, got into a chat with an older boy about camp. The boy asked what camp. In Georgia, my nephew reported, a Jewish camp.
“I know a Jewish boy at school,” the boy said without irony. “He’s not bad when you get to know him.”
When we laughed, the boy became a tad belligerent. With night falling, it felt a little spooky.
The volunteer said no one should touch the turtles when they start moving. If one goes off track, tell a volunteer, who will guide it back into the trench. A few of the volunteers had pulled latex gloves on, as if the hatch were imminent. I asked how many babies there would be. She said there were 161 eggs in the nest.
“How can you be so specific?”
She explained that the nest had been placed too close to the water by the mother turtle. Volunteers dug it up within hours and moved the eggs to higher ground. Being conscientious, they counted them.
We all peered into the hole. Did the lump move? Maybe.
It was getting dark. Volunteers were shining lights into the hole — red lights, which they believed the turtles couldn’t see.
My wife overheard a man say: “Why aren’t people more interested in the sky. The sky is beautiful tonight.” It was true. The stars were emerging. Then again, there were miles of beach, yet this man was here with the rest of us, awaiting the turtles.
The scientist in charge arrived, Brett DeGregorio. He seemed young and vigorous, on top of things. I asked if he was a marine biologist and he shook his head.
“I’m a reptile guy.”
That made sense. He told me he held an undergraduate degree from U. Mass. For his Masters, he’d studied rattlesnakes at Purdue. He seemed a little startled by the turnout. I don’t suppose one gets a crowd for rattlesnake hatches.
Despite the excitement, I had the presence of mind to ask Brett how long this would take. Our kids are young and the mosquitos were coming out. I’ll take gnats over mosquitos any day.
Brett said most of the hatchlings would emerge all at once in what observers call a boil. Once that begins it would all be over in a few minutes, he said.
But how long after the roof of the nest has fallen in does it begin?
“Anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours.”
Thirty-six hours! It was after nine o’clock and the kids were already exhausted. I passed the word and we made a group decision to leave. Each of us gave a parting glance to the hole. Status quo. We trudged away disappointed.
Back at the house, my seven-year-old daughter said of the turtles: “They’ll probably come out at one in the morning when no one’s around except the super nature explorers and people who are really really desperate.”
But the super nature explorers and the casual observers, the desperate and the not so desperate were all equally disappointed that night.
In the morning, a lone volunteer stood monitoring the nest. My wife made inquiries. The volunteer explained that the boil hadn’t happened and, notwithstanding its name, was unlikely to occur in the heat of day. Maybe tonight, she said. She further explained that the one lone turtle that appeared as no more than a lump of sand had been removed by the scientist for safe keeping, carried away in a cooler.
Poor little guy!
An hour later that volunteer had gone and my wife, ever curious, picked the brains of another. This one said the first volunteer was misinformed. No turtle had been removed, just covered again with sand for protection from the sun.
Who to believe? It was like a very earnest game of telephone.
Yet something was happening in that hole, something not contrived by man, something both ancient and in a sense eternal.
So of course we were back that evening with the crowd, staring into the sand crater. The volunteers were ready and eager again, too. The crowd was more insistently hushed, as if through reverence they could make nature happen. Brett, the scientist, was there, too.
I asked some more questions and learned some more facts. Several species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Bald Head, but this was the most common, a loggerhead nest. And if it hatched — when it hatched — it would be the first of a light season. Last year there were more than seventy nests laid. This year, fewer than thirty. Also, on the subject of numbers, Brett said there were 154 eggs in the nest, not 161, as the volunteer had insisted. I wasn’t about to count the hatch, but if someone decided to do so, I’d put my money on Brett.
The evening progressed as before, though a discerning look into the hole revealed more lumps than the previous night. And did one of those lumps just move? Maybe.
Darkness fell and my entire party drifted away. I decided to hang out for a few more minutes.
Then a minor commotion arose as one of the volunteers showed up with a small red cooler. Brett opened the lid and I peered inside. A sand-colored turtle the size of two quarters rested there on what looked like a bed of damp cotton. Rescued. So the first volunteer had reported correctly.
“Maybe this guy can inspire the others,” Brett said. Gently, he dropped the baby turtle into the hole. It stretched its neck and one of the lumps looked up. Then a couple of other lumps moved.
This was more action than we’d seen in that crater in two days. I took out my cell phone and whispered urgently when my sister answered: “It’s happening. Get out here!”
My party — kids and all — arrived just in time to see the hole come to life. A boil. One moment we were looking mostly at sand. Then, with the suddenness of a Star Trek transporter beam, it was mostly turtles. Baby turtles, two or three inches long and straining against one another with the determination of toddlers on their first trundle. They crested the lip of the hole, scampered straight through the wire mesh, and sprinted down the trench toward the ocean as fast as their flippers would carry them.
My nephew, never at a loss for words, said, “It’s like a race!”
If so, it was an endurance race. They say that only one of ten thousand sea turtles survives the twenty-five years required for sexual maturity. A lucky few may live eighty years.
Nature, if it has consciousness, must think us mad.
As is the case for so many species, man is the sea turtles’ No. 1 predator. Though they’re protected in many places, they are also hunted for their meat, their shells and their skin. We destroy their habitat with beachside development. We snag them in long-line fishing rigs and shrimp nets, where they often drown.
And yet, others among us usher these creatures into the world with more attention than most newborns get. (When was the last time you saw a hundred people at a human birth?) If they could remember volunteers with latex gloves, guiding them toward the ocean, the turtles must later look up at industrial trawlers with incredulousness, wondering: And these people are all one species?
In this admittedly roundabout way I thought, the next day, of the gnats in my bathroom and how casually I terminated their existence and would continue to do so.
A gnat, of course, is not a sea turtle. And one can’t fret every death, right? All life, as the poet Frank Bidart wrote, “exists at the expense of other life.”
The next morning, fire ants by the front door stung my sister’s leg. My brother-in-law, always eager to act, sprayed poison on them, defending his family. We’ve all done it. And, as they always do, the ants curled into little twitching balls and expired.
And I thought: perhaps I should ask my daughter what she meant the other night, when she spoke of really desperate people.