The sea turtles' second chance

SUN JOURNAL

Rescue: A dedicated group, most of them volunteers, labors to preserve a threatened denizen of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras.

July 05, 2000|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TOPSAIL, N.C. - At first glance, this story is about nine sea turtles: Five massive loggerheads, three highly endangered Kemp's ridleys and a little green named Cheesecake.

All had been found in distress - suffering from maladies ranging from hypothermia to injuries that came from collisions with commercial fishing nets. All got a second chance on life at the Topsail Beach Sea Turtle Hospital in this oceanfront enclave.

Late last month, after the ocean temperature reached 75 degrees, the nine were sent back to the sea - a small victory for preservation.

Their successful release, however, was the product of much labor by many.

As the creatures entered the waters, there were hundreds of volunteer turtle monitors, a police escort, video crews from a half-dozen television channels, and more than 1,000 human well-wishers waving goodbye.

Ruth Boettcher, the Sea Turtle Project Coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, is one. She is known in the tidewater region as "the turtle lady." She is a sea turtle protector, helping educate the beachgoing public and coordinating nearly two dozen volunteer groups such as the Topsail Turtle Project. She also collects and maintains data on sea turtles and keeps a count of turtle strandings.

`Mystical experience'

Jean Beasley, director of the Topsail turtle hospital, is another. Since the mid-1980s, she has been a major advocate for sea turtles. She and her late daughter, Karen, were responsible for proving that this stretch of barrier islands was home to a nesting population of sea turtles."[The release] is the culmination of a lot of hard work. There is a lot of thankfulness on our part," she said. "It was a mystical experience seeing those turtles welcomed home. This is our way of giving something back."

North Carolina is at the northern limit of favorable sea turtle nesting areas. Only 1 percent of the Atlantic sea turtle population nests there, but the state's oceanfront and extensive estuaries are important feeding grounds and migration routes.

This has been a busy year for Boettcher.

In contrast with the Topsail Beach turtle release, the Outer Banks have seen a staggering 427 fatal strandings from Jan. 1 to June 8. And Boettcher was in the midst of it.

Earlier in the spring, she drove the Cape Hatteras beaches to collect data from turtle carcasses. Then there were a dozen or so.

Her routine rarely varied. Using large calipers, she took shell measurements.

Then, to determine the turtle's general health and cause of death, she flipped the carcass and, with a sharpened butcher knife, deftly unhinged the plastron - the lower shell - to inspect the internal organs.

It's not pretty work, and if performed too long after the body washes up, standing downwind is a mistake.

"This is frustrating," she said, as she gutted another loggerhead. "Turtles can drown in fishing nets, and the net marks won't show up."

Boettcher, a wildlife technician, has worked with sea turtles for five years. She showed a ready smile and relaxed attitude, even when performing such unpleasant beachfront surgeries.

Only her quick and thorough technique gave evidence that she had done this much too often. The ensuing two months would give her even more opportunity to practice, more frustration and less reason to smile.

In April and May, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was blanketed with dead loggerheads and a scattering of the smaller Kemp's ridleys.

Disturbing figures

"[Last year] was our highest year for reported strandings [605]," she wrote on June 9. "The fact that this year's current total exceeds last year's January 1 to June 8 total by a whopping 86 percent is very disturbing to say the least."

The May strandings alone left more than 200 turtles moldering on the beach. The cause of the April strandings remains unknown, although the gossip on the beach held that the turtles must have drowned in commercial monkfish nets.

Boettcher's dissections found that "those turtles were in good nutritional condition prior to death and none had ingested anything that would have killed them." Additionally, none showed signs of tangling with potentially fatal fishing gear.

The turtles in the May strandings were too decomposed to know what caused their deaths, although there was no evidence that the creatures ingested fishhooks. Boettcher did find four turtles fouled by large mesh gillnet gear - typical of the stretch mesh net used by monkfish fishermen.

Because of this, the National Marine Fishery Service enacted a 30-day closure for all large mesh gillnet fisheries in offshore waters from Cape Hatteras to the Virginia-Maryland border.

Despite this closure, Virginia experienced a mass turtle stranding while the closure was in effect.

Winning the battle for the nine sea creatures took a lot of effort.

An all-volunteer staff put in full days treating, feeding, cleaning and exercising the nine just released, as well as 14 others.

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