Sometimes you are lucky enough to be in the right place at just the right time to see one of Nature’s miracles. Like on July 4, when Rich and I were out for a turtle walk at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. We had considered our walk a good one when we found a few hatchlings and a nesting mother. But the best part of the morning was yet to come. We saw a turtle nest nest emerge! Suddenly dozens of hatchlings burst from the sand and made their way to the water.
We saw the nest at the base of the stairs leading to the parking lot. We were hot and ready for some air conditioning. But all thoughts of leaving abandoned us when we spotted two little heads sticking out of the sand. At first we thought the babies were the weaklings that hadn’t made it. But as we watched, the first little guy wiggled himself free.
It’s against the law to touch the tiny turtles. But that race from the dunes to the water’s edge is dangerous. A bird can swoop down and grab the baby. Dozens of crabs stand between the nest and the water. Not to mention the dogs, raccoons, and potential to be stepped on by people on the beach. So Rich and I followed at a respectful distance. When we saw the hatchling get stuck in a deep footprint, Rich started smoothing out the sand to give the little guy an easier path.
The incubation time for turtle eggs is around two months. The turtle mom lays her eggs and returns to the ocean, leaving her babies to hatch and grow up alone. The little babies have a special tooth that helps them break free from the egg. The babies can stay under the sand for up to several days as they await a good time to emerge. Usually they emerge at night, when they are less visible to predators. We were lucky to see this nest emerge in the early morning.
Even though the turtle had just emerged from the sand, he knew just what to do. He headed straight for the waves and entered them…
I can only image how vast the giant ocean must seem to the tiny turtle. Diving into the waves isn’t as easy as jumping into a swimming pool, either. The waves often catch the hatchlings and sweep them back onto the sand. Sometimes they even land upside down and have to wiggle themselves off their backs before they can try again to enter the water.
After escorting the first hatchling to the water, Rich and I walked back up to the nest. A second hatchling had his head out of the sand. This time we shared the amazement with another couple that had just stepped onto the beach. “It’s our first baby turtle!” they said. Watching that hatchling victoriously enter the water was a triumph as we all remembered the number of nests lost to Hurricane Irma two years ago.
The next time Rich and I looked at the nest, several heads and flippers were coming out of the sand. The hatchlings were so cute as they wiggled their flippers and tried to break free of the sand.
Suddenly the sand under the turtles seemed to shift. It freed all the turtles who were half-buried. Then ground opened and hatchlings started to flow out. They were covered in sand and disoriented as they climbed over each other, fighting to get to the surface. Instinctively they knew which way to turn to head to the ocean. “Holy cow!” said Rich.
Sill images are great, but a video is the best way to tell the story of the emergence. Both Rich and I switched into video mode, Rich using his iPhone and me with my DSLR. I stitched our shots together to create this video…
The smiles on our faces were huge as we watched the babies enter the water. One after one they made the mad dash down the slope of the beach to enter the water. It was a turtle fanatic’s dream come true. I think I filled up 2 cards that morning.
When I got home, I stitched some of my favorite images together into a collage for Rich. My turtle-loving husband never dreamed that he’d get to see a nest hatch like this. It’s going to take a long time to wipe the smile off his face!! :)
Want to learn more about nature photography at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge?
Check out my Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!