The Birth of the next Turtle Generation

Dr. Eastwood and Isaias watch as newborn turtles head for the sea

by Dr. Bron Eastwood and Maarten Hoffmann

September 6th 1999 - Having volunteered to monitor the turtle nests at the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, we left San Pedro by boat with no great confidence that we would actually see any hatchlings, being that this is a very rare scene to actually witness.

    Having joined Isaias Majil and Jason Edwards, who work tirelessly for the Marine Reserve, we dropped off our overnight gear at the Research Station near Rocky Point and headed off toward Robles Point for the long, beach walk to check all the remaining nests. Upon reaching the first nest, that had already hatched, we assisted in digging out and counting the old eggs to record the number of hatchlings and the number of spoilt eggs. Spoilt eggs, being those that have been ruined by crabs and the like, and those that for one reason or another failed to hatch.

    We then made our way to the second nest and began to very carefully dig. After a couple of minutes and to great excitement, Isaias revealed a tiny little head of a turtle that had just broken out of its shell. Quickly, we covered the nest and knew that we would indeed witness this rare sight at dusk. We then checked a few more old nests before we made our way back to the live nest, being that we were determined not to miss it. We settled down and waited for this incredible event.

    Three hours later, dusk had been and gone and we were still sitting there, being attacked by everything that flies, bites and stings, now in total darkness. The sky was littered with twinkling stars, the backdrop full of fireflies and the sea glittered with phosphorescence - quite beautiful.

     At 7:10 p.m., we were all face down in the sand, with bottoms in the air, watching for any movement. Suddenly, the sand moved and one tiny turtle head appeared. This being the leader of the pack, he stayed there for several minutes checking out his new world and looking for any predators. The head disappeared and all was calm once again. Isaias and Jason had warned us that this would happen and we were content to sit and wait for the "event". Minutes later, the tiny head was back - checking us out. The moon wasn't up but our eyes were accustomed to the starlight and the sandy crater suddenly turned black, full of turtle hatchlings! Eighty-two tiny Loggerhead turtles scrambled for the surface, as if a silent signal had been given, one they were born to wait for.

    With our mouths hanging open in pure, unadulterated amazement, 82 newborn turtles scuttled up, turned toward the sea and made a mad dash for the water, on total remote control. The sand was alive with new life and it was all we could do not to scream with delight. Whilst the last hatchling was struggling out of his deep sandy nest, the first was already at the water line and his brothers and sisters now covered the entire stretch of beach. The first wave threw them  back onto the beach, but undeterred they went directly back into the surf as they are programmed to do.

    At this point, Maarten took the first photograph (his mouth was too wide open in stunned amazement to take one earlier) and as the flash went off, every single hatchling stopped, turned to face him and started off in his direction. Of course, they were trying to follow the sound of the water and the moon, and now the Olympus camera had become their moon. Isaias called for Maarten to move to the water line, which he did with great speed, and the line of hatchlings duly turned and followed him. At this point, Bron was standing by the water line, again with mouth wide open, and as if to prove that they are unstoppable, one hatchling reached her foot, clambered over it with ease and continued on his journey - accompanied by her squeals of delight.

    Finally, the last hatchling reached the water line and disappeared out into the open ocean, but not before having to swim through the heavy surf at the reef edge - a feat that even we humans find difficult. As we write this, they are still swimming out there somewhere, struggling to keep out of the reach of the numerous predators and natural obstacles that would appear to us to be insurmountable.

    Isaias and Jason, ever ready to answer our endless questions, informed us that only one out of 100 of these hatchlings would make it to maturity and become a fully grown 85 pound Loggerhead turtle.

    It is very rewarding to know that we assisted in at least the first part of their journey, ensuring that the crabs and birds failed to get any of them on the beach. Once into the sea, they are on their own, but having seen their determination, stamina and pre-programming, they have a great chance of making it.

    We have traveled much of the world, and seen schooling Hammerhead Sharks, Grey Whales giving birth, Great White Sharks attacking bait boxes, Ospreys plucking fish from the sea and Giant Pacific Manta Rays barrel rolling but this event tops it all. In short, the most awe inspiring sight we have ever witnessed and we are greatly indebted to The Bacalar Chico National Park, and their staff, for the opportunity.

    Anyone wishing to witness such a sight is more than welcome to volunteer their services to the Park. You will have to work for it, digging out old nests, walking miles up and down the beach under the burning sun whilst being attacked by every airborne irritant known to man, but the chance to see the hatchlings debut into this world is worth all this and much more.

    This, and many, many other wonders, are all right here on Ambergris Caye - an environment so rich and awesome in its diversity and a place that we are proud and privileged to call home.

The Birth of the next Turtle Generation

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