Emergence and ‘Lost Years’ only the beginning for sea turtles

The fantastic journey of a newly hatched sea turtle is one of tenacity and the will to survive.

Having been buried in a nest under 2 to 3 feet of sand, the hatchling must use its caruncle (a pointed bump on the tip of its snout) to break free of the egg and make its way to the surface. It’s exhausting to claw at the compacted sand, clamoring to get a foothold in order to move upward.

The hatchling discovers that it is surrounded by nest mates who are all in the same predicament, also working toward the same goal of freedom.

The excitement of their upward movement spurs everyone on and the hatchling tries even harder.

The earth falls away as the hatchlings climb over each other, egg shells, sand and others who weren’t so lucky. After this collaborative effort, which lasts for hours or even days, most everyone has arrived at the surface, usually at dusk. In the distance, there’s a sound – and the reflection of lights on the water. Instinctively realizing it’s the only chance for survival, the group heads in that direction.

Though escaping the nest was tough, the next trek toward the shoreline is incredibly dangerous, yet necessary. As the hatchling scrambles toward the sun setting on the ocean horizon, fellow hatchlings are picked off one by one by various predators. Suddenly, a wave hits the little turtle, sweeping it back the wrong way!

This happens time after time until finally, the hatchling is floating in the surf and in a frenzy of movement, it begins to swim. Its limbs work quickly as it moves farther and farther away from that perilous place where it spent the first moments of release.

So begins the life of a newly hatched sea turtle. The odds of surviving to this point are slim. Crabs, seabirds, dogs, mongoose and even ants prey on turtle hatchlings on the beach. Even a deep footprint in the sand can be too much of an obstacle, with up to 97 percent of the hatchlings never even making it past the reef before becoming a meal for predatory fish.

This drama has begun to play itself out in real life right here on Maui. It’s nesting season in the Hawaiian Islands for the hawksbill and green sea turtles. The female hawksbill and green sea turtles have started to haul out and leave clutches of eggs behind.

Green sea turtles lay as many as seven nests approximately two weeks apart with 75 to 150 eggs each. After incubating for about 60 days, the hatchlings will claw their way out and head to the ocean, but this is only the beginning. What follows is often referred to as the “Lost Years,” when little is known about this period of a juvenile sea turtle’s life.

After reaching the sea, the tiny hatchling, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, swims out to the vast open ocean. For the next five to 10 years, it will drift with currents out in the Pelagic zone of the ocean, feeding on sea jellies, fish eggs, smaller fishes and algae, never once coming near land, often taking refuge under floating driftwood or debris. This doesn’t mean life will be easy. The chances of surviving to sexual maturity (15 to 25 years old) are 1 in 1,000, and at this state the courageous hatchling is a bite-sized morsel for many hungry marine animals.

The “Lost Years” is a critical time for the juvenile sea turtle because it experiences the most rapid period of growth in its life cycle . . . all in preparation to someday return to coastal feeding areas and the land from which it came.

* Colleen Foster is the director of education at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.

* This article contains a correction from the original published on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014. Cheryl King took the photo that appeared with the Ka Mo’olelo Moana column on sea turtles on Page C4. The photo credit was omitted from the photo caption.

The Maui News apologizes for the error.