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June 23, 2009

Nesting Nights: A Bumpy Ride

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of posts about Emily and Kerri Lynn’s week-long trip to North Carolina in hopes of witnessing loggerhead sea turtles nesting. Check out last year’s trip to see sea turtles hatching. Stay tuned for more updates this week.

Last night I learned what it’s like to be an all-night sea turtle patroller. Okay, so I only did it for a little more than an hour, but I think I got the idea.

Kerri Lynn and I joined the BHI turtle interns on their patrol rounds on the beach, which start at 9 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. The patrols are crucial to the on-the-beach conservation process. The interns tag the females, take measurements, and mark the location of the nests to build protective cages over them to keep out foxes and other predators.

Plus, they relocate a nest if it is laid on a vulnerable section of beach. So far this year, they’ve had to relocate a whopping nine of the twelve nests mainly due to beach erosion. At around 11, I climbed in the back of Lola, the older, more temperamental vehicle, and Kerri Lynn rode in Gus, the younger but slower one. At first it was exhilarating – like a sea turtle superhero adventure – but that wore off as I worried the hot engine directly beneath me would burn a hole in my pants, the gas fumes would kill all my brain cells, and one bumpy section of the beach might rattle the teeth out of my head.

“You should be glad the weather’s nice,” one of the girls said. “We’ve been out in hail before.” They only take a break from the storm if lightning looks particularly close by. It’s like the X games of conservation. They take one 45-minute break in their nine-hour shift, and they go four nights on and one night off.

I asked them what they think about during their rounds. “Nothing. Your mind goes blank,” one said. They drink a lot of coffee, half-listen to their iPods (they need to hear the walkie talkie, and the vehicle is loud anyway), and chit-chat.

And of course, if they spot a turtle, the night whizzes by. At times they get 2 or 3 turtles a night, in which case the multiple teams are crucial, since one team is taking the first turtle’s measurements and tagging while the other continues patrolling.

Last night, though, was the fourth night in a row with no turtle sightings. That’s a lot of gas and coffee, and no female loggerheads.

Needless to say, Kerri Lynn and I came away with a tremendous amount of respect for what these interns do every night. And it’s troubling to think that after all of their hard work to protect the nesting and hatching process, these turtles could end up tangled in fishing gear, with no in-the-water superhero (like TED) to save them.

Check out more photos of the trip on Flickr.