When it comes to dealing with a wild animal in distress, there are generally two schools of thought: you either leave the creature and let nature take its course, or you jump in and do everything you can to help. But when forced to make a life-or-death decision, can we really trust ourselves to make the right call?
This was the dilemma a group of marine experts faced when a sea creature washed ashore in the most unlikely place. Though they tried to stick to protocol, a looming threat to the wildlife forced these veterans to resort to the most drastic of measures.
Rockaway Beach has been a landmark of Queens, New York, for over a century. With its well-kept shores and close proximity to Manhattan, this neighborhood has long been considered the perfect place to escape the hot summers of New York City.
As one of the area’s most popular vacation spots, it’s no surprise the crowded beaches of Rockaway aren’t exactly ideal for wild animals. However, that didn’t stop one creature from coming ashore for a very special purpose.
When the animal emerged from the sea, beachgoers spotted it almost immediately, and before long, a large crowd gathered to watch as it shuffled through the sand.
The Durango Herald
The creature was a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, one of the rarest species of turtle on the planet! And while turtle spottings are relatively commonplace on Long Island, finding a Kemp’s Ridley there was as likely as striking gold.
National Park Services
Kemp’s Ridleys are known to live mostly in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, an environment much different than that offered by the icy Atlantic. So, how did this turtle wind up so far from home?
Environmental Defense Fund
Well, the crowd got their answers pretty quickly, as no sooner did the turtle settle itself in the sand that it began laying hundreds of tiny eggs. Beachgoers were amazed at the sight, but these unhatched turtles were in danger.
Sea Turtle Exploration
Despite being buried beneath a thick layer of sand, the eggs were at risk of improper incubation due to the cold climate. It was a huge gamble for the exhausted mama turtle to deposit her clutch here.
USFWS Midwest Region
After the mama turtle returned to the sea, onlookers contacted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research (RFMR) to come and assess the situation. Arriving within minutes, rescue workers realized the danger these eggs were in and immediately went to work.
To preserve the eggs, rescuers constructed a small fence around the nest that would prevent predatory animals (and curious beachgoers) from snooping around.
Mote Marine Laboratory
Rescue workers returned to the small nest daily to check on the eggs. The RFMR was confident their plan would protect the turtles long enough for them to hatch. But even for all their optimism, mother nature had different plans.
In early September, rising tides from recent storm surges crept ever closer to the vulnerable nest. As the waters slowly ate away at the surrounding area, it was only a matter of time before the unthinkable would happen.
If the waters began to flood the nest, the turtles would most certainly drown; and if that wasn’t bad enough, those that survived would become easy prey. The rescuers knew they needed to interfere, but something was holding them back.
Most wildlife services maintain that one should never interfere in the happenings of nature. But even so, the rescuers were convinced that, in some way, human interaction with the landscape was partially responsible for the looming threat to the turtles.
With this in mind, the RFMR contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a plea for permission to relocate the eggs. The federal agency denied the plea: the eggs must stay, officials said!
Determined to save the turtles, however, the RFMR pushed back. Despite initial protests, Fish and Wildlife relented, and the rescuers got to work on the newest phase of their plan!
Fish and Wildlife Services / Flickr
Finding an impressive 110 of the 116 eggs were still alive, rescue workers collected the unhatched turtles and transported them to a nearby animal care facility. Placing the eggs in high-tech incubators, the RFMR hoped their unorthodox hatching method would be enough to do the trick.
Because the eggs had been laid two months prior and that their average incubation period typically lasted 60 days, rescuers were concerned the turtles might’ve been injured by the flooding or by the move. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case.
After only a week or so of incubation, one of the rescue workers noticed the eggs were beginning to form small cracks on their surfaces. They were hatching! But as excited as the rescuers were, they realized that this seemingly good news also brought with it a handful of new problems.
When baby turtles first hatch, they’re born with incredibly high energy levels – known as “frenzy” – which allows them to hastily make their way into the water and overcome large waves. With the turtle’s energy boosts only lasting a short time, it was vital for the rescuers to get them back to Rockaway as quickly as possible.
In the end, 96 of the 116 original eggs hatched, sending nearly 100 baby turtles scrambling across the sand and into the ocean. The rescue workers cheered watching the tiny creatures hop into the waves.
MattandEileen / WordPress
“It was one of the proudest and [most] exciting moments of my career,” said Patti Rafferty, the Chief of Resource Stewardship for the nearby Gateway National Recreation Area. Sadly, though, this would likely be the last time these rescuers ever saw the many lives they had saved.
Gateway National Recreation Area / Facebook
Because of their small size, the workers were unable to tag the turtles and would not be able to track them as they navigated the open ocean. Still, for Kemp’s Ridley turtles all over the world, there was a lot of work to be done.
shalene / Reddit
Versova Beach isn’t the place to lay on the sand. You’d be lucky to find a spot to lay down a towel since nearly every square foot is covered with a thick layer of trash. Long ago, it teemed with Kemp’s Ridley turtles.
Of the 72 miles of the Mumbai coastline, pretty much all of it is overcome with litter. To reach the shallows of the Arabian Sea, you need to scramble over heaps of plastic wrappers and discarded drink bottles.
Fortunately, that’s changing. Afroz Shah, a lawyer and self-proclaimed ocean lover, grew sick and tired of his community’s lack of motivation when it came to cleaning up the mess. So, in 2016, he put on a pair of gloves and started picking up the trash himself.
He could see a 5.5-foot tall stack of plastic on the beach from the window of his home, so that was an easy place to start. From there, Afroz dedicated 4 hours every weekend to cleaning up sections of his local beach.
One Green Planet
Persuading others to join wasn’t Afroz’s style. He preferred to show through action, and he hoped others would follow suit. Nearly seven weeks into his cleanup, a few men approached him and asked to borrow gloves.
Yale Environment 360
That early group grew to what the United Nations dubbed the “world’s largest beach cleanup project.” In the years that followed, Afroz and hundreds of volunteers spread out on the beach and cleared over two miles and thousands of pounds of trash.
Mumbai News Networks
What appeared as too overwhelming a problem initially slowly became a manageable task. Their process was simple: gather trash by hand or shovel, place it into a plastic bucket, dump the buckets into a giant pile, and then let tractors haul it all to a waste-sorting center.
At times, Afroz worried his efforts were futile. Fighting against deeply ingrained systematic problems like unregulated urbanization, overpopulation, and cultural lack of awareness of the serious effects of pollution made it seem like an unwinnable battle.
In early 2019, word traveled along the coast that something out of the ordinary was spotted in the newly exposed sand. When the news reached Afroz, a glimmer of hope burned in his belly, though he waited to see if the rumors were true.
His phone rang in mid-March with the game-changing update — the turtles had landed. Volunteers noticed several freshly hatched Olive Ridley sea turtles crawling out of hidden nests and were making their trek across the sand to the waiting ocean.
Labeled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable,” Olive Ridley sea turtles are the most common type of sea turtles swimming the oceans. In the past, they laid eggs along the coast of Mumbai, though rampant pollution kept them away for decades.
Tidier shores drew them back to Versova beach, and Afroz brimmed with pride. He ran to the beaches to witness the first effects of the mass cleanup: the sight of the baby turtles scuttling into the ocean.
Within a couple of days, two or three turtles turned into eighty. No one could remember a time when ocean life existed on the beach instead of trash.
Volunteers staked out the beach, protecting the precious turtles at all costs. Unguarded, they could fall victim to the wild dogs searching the beaches for their next meal. They were even vulnerable to an attack from the skies, as birds threatened swoop down and steal the turtles’ eggs.
Oliver Ridley Project
Throughout the egg-laying and hatching process, the volunteers lingered nearby. After investing years of time and energy into rehabbing the beach, it was equally important for them to finish the job by making sure the turtles could return annually to their natural home.
Awareness and concern led to an increase in the number of volunteers. Thanks to all the attention stirred up by the sea turtle nestings — combined with the appeal of cleaner spaces — more and more people are now joining the cause.
On September 21, 2019, otherwise known as International Coastal Cleanup Day, an enormous number of people turned up at Versova beach ready to get their hands dirty. In total, over 3,000 volunteers, students, activists, and celebrities worked together to pick up litter.
Actress Bhumi Pednekar was among the energized crowd. Two hours of digging through sand and garbage later, she beamed as she told reporters: “This is the most gratifying thing that I have ever done in my life.”
Afroz started his cleanup as a personal commitment to the planet. His efforts ignited a movement, and conservationists are now extending his philosophy to the surrounding mangroves and creeks in an effort to return more creatures to their natural homes — sea turtles included.
Twitter / Afroz Shah
Pollution and climate change pose significant challenges for turtle populations. If they can’t lay eggs in their natural habitats, they seek refuge elsewhere. These “detour locations” are often unfit for their young to survive, though that hasn’t stopped these turtles from traveling as far as the northern United States.
Blue Ridge Outdoors