What kind of mother abandons her babies in the middle of a tropical beach? Hopefully no human, but hawksbill sea turtle mothers certainly do. A female hawksbill’s instincts guide her to swim hundreds of miles to the beach where she was born to lay her nests. When she arrives, she crawls up onto the beach, often heaving herself over large rocks to reach the sand that lies above the high-tide line. Once she finds a suitable spot, she begins digging a deep hole with her rear flippers in which to lay her eggs, 150 or more of them. After laying and then covering the nest with sand, she returns to the ocean, leaving the hawksbill offspring to develop, hatch, climb out of the nest, crawl to the ocean, and then survive on their own.
Needless to say, survival for these defenseless hawksbill hatchlings is often grim. Due to the lack of parental care for their young, sea turtles compensate by laying hundreds of eggs each season in hopes that some will survive. Hawksbill mothers can lay up to 6 nests in one season with up to around 200 eggs in each nest. That’s potentially 1200 babies from one mother! Hatchlings, however, face realities that significantly reduce the number of survivors. Moreover, in the past century, human actions have reduced the total number of adult hawksbills, decreased available nesting area, and introduced invasive predators, such as mongoose and rats, to nesting locations.
Upon graduating from Lipscomb, I endeavored to put my sustainability education to use by joining the Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project in Hawaii for three months. Hawksbills, a critically endangered species of sea turtle, commonly nest on the Big Island of Hawaii, so I packed my bags and boarded a plane bound for Hilo, Hawaii. The Turtle Project operates in collaboration with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and I, along with 7 other volunteers, lived and worked in the park to help save this species.
In groups of at least two people, we would go out into the field for three to six nights at a time. While in the field, we camped just off the beach, and each night we monitored the beach from 5 pm until 2 am because most nesting activity takes place at night. We checked the beach each hour for adult females coming up to nest or for hatchlings emerging from their nests (using red lights because white lights interfere with the turtles’ senses). When an adult came up to nest, we were careful to not disturb or scare the turtle while she was digging her nest. Laying, belly to the sand, while the turtles dug for an hour or two could sometimes become a battle to stay awake during the late hours!
By monitoring, we were able to locate and label each nest, tag adults on their way back to the ocean, and collect data. Since the adults get tagged, we can track which have returned from previous years, which are new, which turtle laid a nest, and approximately when the turtle will return to lay her next nest. Also, by labeling the nests and recording the date, we were able to estimate when to begin watching closely for hatchlings to begin emerging.
Each morning we rose at 6 am to check the beach for any tracks and digs from turtles that might have come up after we went to bed at 2. Then, since our team was not large enough to cover all potential nesting beaches, at least one person made a day hike to nearby beaches to check them for any tracks and digs. After hiking anywhere from 3 to 12 miles each day, we spent the remainder of the day resting, napping, and exploring.
The hatchlings, of course, were the most exciting part of the project! We worked tirelessly to protect them from predators, allow them to imprint on the beach, and reach the ocean safely. There is hardly anything as exciting or adorable as watching the sand begin to shift as a little hatchling begins to poke its head out! Except maybe seeing dozens of hatchlings crawling over each other up from the sand!
Few people get the privilege of seeing this elusive and diminishing species because they only come ashore to lay nests, and even fewer have the privilege of seeing the adorable hatchlings emerge. I feel honored to have been able to work so closely with them and, hopefully, help them fight their way back from the brink of extinction. Globally, Hawaii is only a minor nesting area for the hawksbill, but with such low population numbers, every hatchling is important. Upon reaching the ocean, they encounter a host of additional obstacles and predators, but we humans are responsible for their species’ decline, and so we should also be responsible for giving them every opportunity to succeed.