At midnight on Wednesday, I returned home, but not before calling Kirsten to update her, tell her I was heading out, and that I'd keep my phone close should she need help later.
A hot shower was the first thing in order, then I went to my computer to check Weather Underground for an update on Hurricane Ike. I had experienced much harsher conditions than I'd expected on the beach just before midnight. Now I was very concerned not only for the hatchlings but for what a large storm could do to our island.
Around 2:00 a.m., I finally went to bed.
[Click HERE to read Kirsten's hair-raising experience at the other end of the beach in the wee hours before she returned to Nest PB 7111]
At 4:23 a.m. my cell phone rang. I'd meant to leave it on my bedside table, but had forgotten and left it in the charger downstairs. Being a light sleeper, I quickly roused and rushed downstairs to return the call, knowing it was Kirsten and that she needed help.
After learning how serious the situation had become and that she was trying to save the nest, I hurried to the site. Luckily I was only 10 minutes away.
It was horrifying to see what had happened in 4 1/2 hours. The waves were enormous and had been washing not only over, but far past the nest. The screen I'd set in place around 7:00 p.m the night before had washed away and was nowhere to be seen. And, as I looked around me, I realized some waves were washing close to foundations of nearby homes and high tide was still more than two hours away.
Kirsten--who cannot be 100 lbs. soaking wet--was exhausted, struggling to keep her footing, holding on with determination to a cooler in which she had added a few inches of sand from the nest and had stowed the rescued hatchlings. She had managed to save approximately 70 small turtles from the nest and had already released 20 into the churning Gulf waters. I could see the hole above the egg chamber where she was trying to reach emerging hatchlings, but just as I arrived another wave swept over the nest and completely filled it in.
Both of us already soaked from the waist down, stepped just below the crest of the dune where the nest had been located and began to release the 50 remaining hatchlings -- four at a time. It may sound like an excessively slow rate unless you've been in the situation. Each huge wave which swept past us frequently swept the hatchlings back into tangles of sea oats and dangerous territory. All we could do was firmly plant our feet to prevent ourselves from being knocked over and possibly crushing a hatchling underfoot. If we caught a glimpse of a one sweeping behind us in a rush of water, we spread out and searched through debris, sand fencing or sea oats until we found them, then proceeded to release another four.
Thankfully, Monica Cain, SCA, another incredible Gulf Islands National Seashore employee, arrived to help. Together we finally released the last of the hatchlings. I didn't even want to think of how they were surviving in the wash-tub of foam and giant waves they were swimming into.
Knowing that some hatchlings must have eventually been washed back, we guestimated a large grid, split up and started searching for strays. Considering you are in the dark, relying mostly on night vision, looking for a creature who weighs in at about one ounce, this is not an easy task.
Just as we thought the hardest part of our task was completed, we realized that a huge street light had probably attracted any strays back toward Boulevar Mayor and Via de Luna!
The search was on.
It took at least another 30 minutes, but we discovered 13 hatchings across the road, disoriented and working their way toward 'the light' -- Gulf Power, that is. Luckily, daybreak helped us follow their tiny tracks -- another lesson well learned for a volunteer, the difference between ghost crab and hatchling tracks.
It was approximately 6:30 a.m. before our work was finished. Perhaps I should say 'my' work, considering Kirsten and Monica were heading out to assess other areas. Kirsten and I both went for our cameras and started documenting the sobering sight of an immense storm before us as it grew lighter. If Hurricane Ike was still so far from Pensacola Beach and having this effect, what would it mean for people along the Texas coast.
I looked at Kirsten, both of us bedraggled, "You know," I said, as we clicked away with our respective Canons, "people would think we'd crazy if they saw us."
"Yeah." she smiled, "but we might as well prove them right."