It is summertime and seeing everyone’s vacation photos on social media naturally make most people jealous. I haven’t been to the beach in about four years. I know it was a privilege to have had regular beach trips every summer throughout my childhood and into adulthood. I miss the sand between my toes, the sound of the waves crashing, dragging a beach chair to the shallow waves and letting the water wash over my feet as I devoured book after book. But there is something about my beach trips that I miss more than any of those things: volunteering on a sea turtle patrol team.
To understand how this came about, I have to give you some context. My great uncle owns a beach house on an island in South Carolina. He and his wife let the family stay in the house for free throughout the year when they were at their other homes in West Virginia. Before my parents and I started visiting the beach house, my grandmother would write me postcards about it; how it was like a treehouse in the jungle, the calm of the residential beach community and, the sea turtles.
When I was fifteen, my obsession with sea turtles had grown. I planned for my first tattoo to be a sea turtle on my foot (that didn’t happen). One of my nicknames in high school was “turtle girl.” So, one day before our annual beach trip, I was searching through Facebook and found the island’s own Sea Turtle Patrol page. I was ecstatic and typed out a message asking to just accompany them on a patrol one morning and re-read it over and over again before finally hitting send. The head of their team, Janie Lackman, answered, inviting me to walk patrol with them.
I mention Janie by name because she became an incredibly important part of my adolescence. My first morning on patrol, my dad drove me out to meet the team on the beach at 6 a.m. He was leery of the situation because, as he put it, “my teenage daughter is going to meet some strangers from the internet on the beach before sunrise.” I was all teenage angst and mad, but in hindsight, I am so glad he was there for my first morning of turtle patrol and, of course, for his protection.
That first morning, the team found a nest that needed to be relocated due to the rising tide. I watched with fascination as the team worked with precision and knowledge to move the nest before the eggs “settled” and it would be damaging for them. They answered every question I had and soon, I was meeting them on the beach every single morning, before sunrise. I was hooked after that first nest. Little did I know how in love I would fall with the baby turtles, hatchlings, I would see over the course of that summer. By the next year, I worked to become South Carolina DNR certified and an official member of the team. I got a t-shirt and learned along the way and soon I was answering adults’ questions like a pro, just as Janie had that first morning.
By my eighteenth year, I received my turtle probe. No, it isn’t at all what it sounds like. It is a sharpened stick that is used to find the nest. Simply put, when you see the adult female turtle tracks in the sand, you can tell by their flipper marks which track is leading to the beach and the other, back out to the ocean. The part in the middle is where the nest should be. I have seen the team find a nest in minutes, and other times search for hours. Often, the nest is so deep in the ground that it took more than the length of my arm to reach the eggs. Finding the nest is an art and you can usually deduce from the tracks and the disturbance in the sand where the nest should be, but it is difficult. To explain the probe, when you think you know where the nest is, you carefully probe the sand. Surrounding the nest is a bubble of air and when you feel the stick hit that pocket, you immediately retreat, so you don’t hurt the eggs. Loggerhead sea turtle eggshells are soft and leathery.
So, it took a few years for me to earn this privilege. This island’s patrol team does something special though. One of the islanders is a woodworker and makes specialized probes for each member. The day I received mine, I cried. It has sat in every home I’ve ever had to remind me of the wonderful times with the team and, honestly prompt a lot of questions from visitors to my home.
I could go on for hours and thousands of words about my time with the team. They’ve told me since that many people reach out via Facebook to observe and many times do not return after a morning or two. They thought I would be the same. The team became like a second family for me, meeting every morning on the beach at 5:30 a.m. and walking the five miles of beach on the island, talking and picking up trash along the way. They even mailed me presents when I graduated high school.
As you all know from previous columns, I am not a morning person. I’ve joked that the only thing that could get me up that early in the morning is sea turtles. I dream, literally, of returning to that island one day, not only to thank the team for everything but to see the turtles again. You see, one year while I was there, we had a record-breaking year. Hundreds of nests covered the beach, the reason...most likely? It was about the 20th year of the team’s existence and Loggerhead Sea Turtles cannot mate until they are about 20 years old. That small, tight-knit team was and still is making a difference in the population of endangered sea turtles and in some small way, so did I.
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice