On a moonlit night in June, a female loggerhead turtle drags herself from the sea onto the beach at Oak Island. She shuffles across the sand, leaving what looks like an enormous tire track behind her, until she chooses a place between the high tide line and the dunes. She turns to face the water and, with her back flipper, she digs a hole a foot and a half deep. Into the hole she lays 150 round white eggs the size of ping-pong balls. She covers the eggs with sand. Without a backward glance, she makes her slow way down through the surf and into the waves.
Just after daybreak the following morning, Kellie Beeson drives a green beach buggy slowly along the beach. She comes to a halt at the track left by the nesting loggerhead. She steps out of the beach buggy, examines the depression in the sand at the end of the track, and marks off the nest with a square of four stakes and yellow tape. She writes the date on a sign that she places at the edge of the square.
Three months later, Beeson's arm disappears into the sand. Turtle hatchlings emerge from 55 to 90 days after they're laid, but no one has seen this nest hatch. After the initial "boil," when a crowd of baby turtles bubbles up from the sand, there are often a few stragglers who might appear two or three nights later. Without the safety of numbers, they're appetizers for ghost crabs and gulls. Beeson digs deep, feeling for soft sand that hints at the presence of nearby eggs. The nest has been overwashed by the tides; the wind has blown the sand around. She's not positive that the nest is exactly in this spot; it might even have been a false crawl, when the loggerhead returns to the ocean without laying any eggs. After digging several holes, Beeson brings up empty eggshells and no baby turtles. The nest hatched in the dark of night a week or more ago, with no one the wiser.
Beeson is the director of the Oak Island Recreation Department, and the coordinator of its Sea Turtle Protection Program. She balances on the precarious border between human beings and nature, and strives for a mutually beneficial arrangement in which more turtles survive the hatching to return to make their own nests on Oak Island 15 or 20 years hence, and the community is drawn closer to each other and to the natural world that surrounds them. One in a thousand turtles survives to adulthood; she aims to improve those odds. In Beeson's philosophy, "The more educated people are, the more people they'll tell, and the more people they'll tell, letting folks know how threatened the sea turtles are, and how important it is not only to volunteer for this program, but to pick up trash and turn your lights out."
The efforts to accommodate both sea turtles and people are not without controversy. The waves at Oak Island make a curious slapping sound as they come to a stop on the ledge of the renourished beach. The Sea Turtle Habitat Restoration Project used $5 million in federal money, $4.7 million in state funds, and $1.7 million from Oak Island property owners to restore the beach between 16th and 60th streets east. After the destruction of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, high tides flowed under the beachfront homes. This year, a broad expanse of sand extends a hundred or so yards between houses and surf, obviously protecting beachfront property at least as much as it's saving the turtles. The sand is littered with rounded brown rocks that don't belong here, marl dug up during the dredging of the Yellow Banks site on the Intracoastal Waterway. In a perfect ecosystem, people would not be living here, and this barrier island would diminish and restore itself of its own natural accord. No beaches would need to be replenished, and sea turtles would never crawl under houses and across streets in search of sand in which to lay their eggs.
But the people are here. The Sea Turtle Habitat Restoration Project was completed in May 2002. That summer, five nests were laid on the renourished beach. This year, there were 20 nests.
Other accommodations to the turtles have united the town, tourists, and permanent residents. Volunteers with the Sea Turtle Protection Program have asked renters and homeowners to turn off their porch lights, so that the hatchlings, whose instinct is to follow the light reflected from the surface of the sea, won't turn instead toward artificial illumination. The town of Oak Island has installed low sodium bulbs in streetlights to diminish the distraction. Police officers shepherd stray hatchlings across the road and into the ocean. Everyone scours the beach for trash, especially the deadly plastic bags that the turtles might mistake for their staple diet of jellyfish.
Eighty volunteers have been assigned to monitor 103 nests. They begin their watch at 55 days after the nest is laid, and they will be there every night until the 90th day, or the nest hatches, whichever comes first. Most nests hatch around the 61st day. Sophisticated structures have been built around some of the nests: black silt fences a foot high to shield the baby turtles from the glare of streetlights, broad avenues running straight as arrows from the nests to guide the hatchlings toward the water 30 yards away, berms on either side of the avenues that look as though they've been constructed by civil engineers.
A volunteer's job is mostly about watching sand. Families bring picnics and chat with passing tourists. Children make up elaborate tales about what the baby turtles might be doing in their underworld. Are they choosing leaders who will show them the way? A woman sits in a lawn chair, beer in hand, staring at her personal square of beach. They all look for signs of movement, a subtle shifting of the sand, a tiny hole where moments before there was none.
They watch other things as well. "It's the first time in my life that I have ever seen a moon set," says Kathy Glover, 71, who retired to Oak Island from Cary four years ago. This summer, she also discovered that the edges of breaking waves glow white with bioluminescence, that waiting on the beach was a balm for troubled friends who visited with her at her nest, that it was a joy to simply watch, with the wind blowing in her face, and nothing but moonlight above her.
It's the night of Sept. 10. Beeson has given me a list of the five Most Likely Candidates to Hatch Tonight, and I've spent the evening wandering from nest to nest, chatting with volunteers, or, if no volunteer is around, simply eyeing the sand as though I know what I'm looking for. I've ended up standing with a group of people by a nest near 9th Street East. I'm only on Oak Island for two nights. I hope that I'll be lucky enough to see a hatch. I've heard of one volunteer who's seen just one hatching in 13 years. Ida Parker, a nurse at the Oak Island Medical Center, kneels next to the nest and listens for sounds of movement with her stethoscope. The night is silver. The full moon is hidden behind the crowds.
A voice crackles over someone's walkie-talkie, "They're on top of the nest at 5th Street!" I take off at a run down the beach, narrowly avoiding stepping on nest after nest cleverly camouflaged by its own sand. In the distance I see the erratic glow of flashlights. I reach 5th Street East, and am no nearer to the flickering lights. I realize the walkie-talkie voice meant 5th Street West, which in the geography of this place, means that I have to go down to First, cross Middleton at the center, and go up several more streets before I reach them. It means I still have roughly a mile to go.
Finally, I reach the hatching nest. There are 70 of them staggering out like little drunken sailors. The baby turtles are two inches wide, slightly darker than the color of wet sand. They are supremely ill suited to be on land. They have enormous front flippers, great for digging and swimming, less great for walking. They have only one instinct, it seems: Go Toward the Light. And they go toward any light: streetlights, lights from the pier half a mile away, lights from the porch behind them. They clamber over the berm. I scoop some up and put them back. I stand in the surf, and shine my beam toward them as though I am a lowslung moon. The hatchlings crawl over my feet. They vanish in the waves. Once they hit the water, they don't need to go to the light anymore, and another instinct switches on: to swim toward the Gulf Stream, 100 miles away.
Epilogue: With the approach of Hurricane Isabel in September, high tides swamp 29 of the remaining turtle nests. Remarkably, some hatchlings survive the immersion. Beeson rescues a few more stragglers, and finds some drowned ones.
In all, 7,286 hatchlings are released. The Gulf Stream carries the baby turtles to the Sargasso Sea, where they will hide themselves for several years in the seaweed. Glover's nest turned out to be a false crawl; she looks forward to next year's hatching.