The true story of how 96 sea turtle hatchlings survived a New York City beach

Calls likely saved the lives of 96 sea turtle hatchlings, all of whom successfully made the trek back out to the ocean.

Article by Mike Gaworecki.

July 12 saw highs in the mid-80s in New York City this year — a typically hot, muggy NYC summer day. Perfect beach weather, in other words.

It was a Thursday, so there probably wouldn’t have been too big of a crowd, but luckily there were at least a few beachgoers out at West Beach, near the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, when a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle — a member of a critically endangered species — crawled on shore and started building a nest. Even more luckily, a couple of those beachgoers had the presence of mind to report it to the 24-hour rescue hotline of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, a local marine wildlife conservation and rescue organization.

Those calls likely saved the lives of 96 sea turtle hatchlings, all of whom successfully made the trek back out to the ocean two months later. While human activities are the primary reason Kemp’s Ridleys face an uncertain future — harvesting of adults and eggs, destruction of their coastal nesting habitats, and entanglement in fishing gear are the chief threats to the species — in this case, human intervention was crucial to the turtles’ survival.

Maxine Montello, the Rescue Program Director at the Riverhead Foundation, had just released two loggerhead turtles, rehabilitated over the previous year, on a Long Island beach when she first heard about the calls regarding the nesting Kemp’s Ridley.

“We have a hotline number and we got a call from a beachgoer saying that they had seen a turtle in the surf line coming in and out of the water,” Montello told Mongabay. “When we first talked to the person, they had said that the animal had gone back into the water, and they sent us some photos. We identified it as that Kemp’s Ridley, but we hadn’t heard anything else about it. But then we received a second caller.”

Even though the second caller had never seen a sea turtle nesting before, Montello knew right away that that’s what the caller was describing. “My background is nesting ecology, so he said some kind of keywords that triggered me to realize that he had just watched that animal nest on that beach.”

This is the farthest north a Kemp’s Ridley has ever been known to nest — their usual nesting grounds are in northern Mexico, with some additional nesting sites in Texas. “[The second caller] was calling me to ask me questions about what kind of turtle I thought it was, he didn’t even think it was strange that it was nesting. We’re thankful they called so we could keep track of that nest.”

Along with officials from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, Montello and the Riverhead Foundation team were the first responders out on the beach the day after the Kemp’s Ridley mother-to-be came ashore. West Beach lies within the 26,607-acre Gateway National Recreation Area, which stretches across parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island in New York as well as Monmouth County in New Jersey. Once the nest was located, an exclosure typically used to protect the nests of piping plovers (a “near-threatened” shorebird, according to the IUCN Red List), was put up around the nest area to keep it safe.

You can listen to an audio version of this story on the Mongabay Newscast.

Because the turtle had come ashore on National Park Service land, it fell to that agency to monitor and protect its nest and eggs. Patti Rafferty, chief of resource stewardship for the Gateway National Recreation Area, explains that the piping plover exclosure was used to deflect any unwanted attention, from humans and animal predators alike.

“Typically there are exclosures that are used specific for sea turtle nests, but we decided to use a piping plover exclosure because folks are used to seeing that out on the beach. We have plovers that nest [there], and we didn’t want to draw any attention to this nest and have people coming out and trying to look for it,” Rafferty told Mongabay.

Information about the nest was kept very closely — even the existence of the nest wasn’t revealed to most National Park Service staff until early September, Rafferty said. “Because we felt that if we let information get out and if it became a public story earlier, then it might attract a large number of folks out to the area looking for it, and we just wouldn’t have the ability to patrol or to protect the nest under those circumstances. We wanted to give it every opportunity to be successful and to hatch.”

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchling crawls out to the Atlantic Ocean on September 24, 2018. Photo Credit: US National Park Service.

Steve Sinkevich, a fish and wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who consulted with Rafferty and the National Park Service on how to handle the nest on West Beach, says that there’s no way to know why this particular turtle found her way to a New York City beach to lay her eggs.

“Did it just get caught up in a bad storm and the currents drove it up here? Is it possible that rising sea temperatures drove it up here? The sample size is so small, it’s just hard to say at this point,” Sinkevich told Mongabay. “Since it’s the first time we’ve ever seen it, the short answer is we just don’t know. Time will tell if it’s a one-time fluke, or if it’s something that’s going to be happening more often.”

The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle has been listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1970, which meant that, by law, the Fish & Wildlife Service had to be consulted before any action could be taken that might cause the harm or harassment of the animal.

“The jurisdiction is basically the water line. Sea turtles, as you may know, they are in the New York waters, they come up here and they forage. They just hadn’t bred up here before,” Sinkevich said. “So when they’re in the water, they’re under the jurisdiction of the National Fisheries Service, but once it comes on land and starts to breed, now it becomes within the jurisdiction of the Fish & Wildlife Service.”

Inundation and excavation

As the piping plover exclosure did its job of averting unwanted human attention, Rafferty and team monitored the nest daily, looking for telltale signs of imminent hatching. Throughout August, they had a series of meetings where plans were made for how to ensure that the hatchlings could safely crawl across the public beach and get into the Atlantic Ocean once the time came. For instance, the team coordinated with a local business located on West Beach to make sure that the lights in the business’s parking lot were turned off when the hatchlings emerged, lest the hatchlings mistake those lights for the moon shining off the ocean and be lured in the wrong direction (one of many reasons bright shore-based lights are a serious threat to sea turtles).

“Our every intention was that it would stay in place and hatching would occur,” Rafferty said. “There’s often signs of cracking on the surface of the sand that we expected to see a few days before hatching would occur, and at that time we were going to implement 24/7 on-the-ground monitoring of the area, and security of the area, to make sure that when the hatchlings emerged they would be able to get safely into the water.”

In the first week of September, Rafferty and park staff put up a chute around the area in case they missed the signs of hatching activity. “You know, it’s nature, not everything happens in a predictable way. Sometimes nests hatch very rapidly and you don’t actually see that cracking or depressions in the sand for a few days before the hatching. So we wanted to make sure if hatchlings came up, that they would not head up and get disoriented or head up into the dunes.”

But, as it turned out, the chute and all the other hatching plans the team had made were rendered moot by the very unpredictability of nature that they were meant to safeguard the hatchlings against. On September 10, when Rafferty and team went out for their morning patrol, they found that an unusually high tide had inundated the nest. And with Hurricane Florence forecast to hit the southeastern US coast within the week, more exceptionally high tides were likely.

“The high tide was up to the dunes,” Rafferty said. “The nest area was overwashed” and “you could see where the tide energy had reworked the exclosure and there were areas around it where there was pooling water.” Sea turtle eggs are able to withstand some inundation, but prolonged periods of submersion underwater can cause sea turtle embryos to fail. Rafferty and her colleagues at the National Park Service were also concerned that the high tide cycles might erode and expose the nest, which could lead to dead embryos or egg material being spread across the beach. “It’s illegal to collect or to possess any part of an endangered species, and we felt that here at the Park Service we had no ability to secure the nest, because it wouldn’t be safe to have folks out there during these high tide events, nor to be able to retrieve or recover any nest materials that might be scattered around on the beach.”

What’s more, September 10 was the 60th day since the eggs were laid. The normal incubation period for Kemp’s Ridley eggs is 45 to 60 days. “In fact, the recovery plan for this species identifies that full-term incubation is 58 days, typically,” Rafferty said. “So we contacted Fish & Wildlife and initiated consultation. Under the Endangered Species Act there’s a provision that allows land managers to intervene on behalf of a species that has sustained injury.” In this case, intervening meant excavating the nest in order to take any eggs that remained viable and incubate them in a secure facility.

Fish & Wildlife concurred that it was likely some embryos had already been lost because of the high tides, and that repeated inundation could doom the nest altogether.

Three Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings crawl across West Beach toward the Atlantic Ocean on September 24, 2018. Photo Credit: US National Park Service.

“To allow them to hatch out naturally, that was certainly the Plan A as far as we were concerned, and the Park Service recognized that,” Fish & Wildlife’s Sinkevich said. “The beach is a relatively wide beach, I think about a few hundred feet wide, and the nest was about 50 or 75 feet above the high water line, but the tides started regularly going all the way up to the dune and inundating the nest. There were hurricanes and other storms in the vicinity, and the feeling was that it was going to get worse before it got better, that there would be increased flooding of that beach.” Another factor Fish & Wildlife scientists took into account was the fact that it was already late in the hatch window. “So between that consideration and the fact that it was going to be inundated for periods of time, the feeling was that we were in danger of losing the nest. With that consideration we felt that it would be best, only in that circumstance, would we be comfortable with them removing that nest.”

When Park Service staff excavated the nest, they found 116 eggs in total, 110 of which appeared to be viable. “So we brought them back and incubated them,” Rafferty said. “We don’t have a facility for incubating at all. In fact, we brought them into an office building on Staten Island where we felt we could keep them best secure.”

The eggs were incubated in three styrofoam coolers using a space heater in a closet. “The closet in my office, actually,” Rafferty added. “I have some vacant positions so the offices around it are empty and it was an area we felt like we could really control noise.” Particularly when sea turtles are starting to hatch, it’s important that they not be exposed to any kind of anthropogenic noises or disturbance, otherwise they can go into a high-energy state known as “frenzy” too early, before they’ve finished absorbing the yolk sack, leaving them without the energy to successfully crawl across the beach to the ocean and swim away.

Two weeks after the nest was excavated, the first of 96 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings began to emerge in Rafferty’s office closet. The first hatching was on September 24, there was another on September 25, and a third on September 28.

“We did hourly checks to ensure that the temperature was holding, and every six hours we actually opened the incubation chambers and checked to look for any signs of hatching,” Rafferty said. “When [the hatchlings] reached that high-energy state, then we mobilized immediately and took them back and returned them on the same beach that the nest was at. There’s some evidence that they can return, that they can home to where the nest was, and so it was important to NPS and to Fish & Wildlife, because [for] both of our organizations, normally our policies and philosophy is you don’t intervene, you know, you let nature take its course.”

‘Share the beach’

As it turned out, nature was not done throwing curve balls at these baby sea turtles. The week they all hatched there were really strong waves and it was on the colder side for early Autumn in New York City. So Rafferty and team had to provide one last helping hand to a few of the hatchlings they released on West Beach by donning chest waders and getting out into the water to help the turtles swim away.

“When they first take off, they swim and then their heads pop up and they take that first breath before they do their first long underwater swim,” Rafferty said. “So that’s what we were looking for. We did give them the opportunity to get out there and swim, but some of them were taking a little bit longer to get out there. A few of them we did give a little bit of help just because the wave energy was really strong and we didn’t want them to expend all their energy just trying to struggle against this really high wave energy.”

The Riverhead Foundation’s Maxine Montello says there are conservation lessons to be learned from this story, and that her organization plans to work with the Fish & Wildlife Service and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to develop a better nesting protocol. But even though some of these hatchlings could grow up and one day return to West Beach to lay eggs of their own, Montello says there’s no reason to worry that it could become a preferred Kemp’s Ridley nesting site any time soon.

“With this being the first animal that ever nested here in Long Island, that we know of, we just want to make sure that there’s protocols followed. We want these nests to be as natural as possible,” Montello said. “I don’t think that this is going to be the new hotspot for nesting turtles, but I do think that it is going to be one of those abnormal events that do occur and we need to be sure that we can handle them and protect them as best we can.”

And while we can’t be certain what motivated this single turtle to come to a New York City beach to nest, there could be some upside to more turtles doing so in the future. “Something that’s really troublesome in the sea turtle community is that there are a lot of females due to the higher temperatures that we’re having,” Montello said. The temperature of a sea turtle nest chamber determines the gender of the hatchlings that emerge from the eggs, with warmer sand producing female hatchlings and cooler sands producing males. “So picking nesting sites that are out of the normal range could benefit in some male populations, which is what the sea turtle community needs.”

For Rafferty, the most important part of this story is that it highlights the impacts of human activities on coastal ecosystems and how that can affect threatened species with whom we share this planet.

“So much of our population lives close to the coast. It’s a place that I personally like to recreate and enjoy, it gives us a lot of enjoyment as well as solace,” she said. “But they’re also really important places for a lot of species. For nesting birds, for the piping plovers that we have in the park. We also have endangered plants that require beach habitat to be on. This turtle really is a chance, because it’s such a charismatic story, to really think about how important it is to make space on our coast for the animals and the plants that need to have that space as well, and to share the beach.”

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