HOLDEN BEACH, NC (WWAY) -- It's been about 40 years since someone spotted a leatherback turtle in Holden Beach. Last night, Holden Beach visitors witnessed 54 baby leatherbacks hatch and make their journey to the sea.
"It was really cool," Klara Altmueller said. "It was not very fast going down."
It was not a quick process, but it was a special one. After months of babysitting the leatherback turtle nest, the hatchlings finally started to dig their way to the surface.
"The leatherbacks seem to be a little bit pokey coming down the trench as opposed to what else we've seen here, and being the first leatherback turtle nest we've ever had, we really didn't know what to expect," Holden Beach Turtle Patrol Project Coordinator Skip Hager said. "They sort of dribbled out by ones and twos and then the nest just sort of erupted with about 30 babies coming out and then put them all in a trench and let them walk."
Because it's so dark and lights distract the turtles, volunteers pick up the babies at the end of the trench and carry them to the shoreline so no one steps on them.
"We wait for the wave to come in, and as it starts to go back out you feel that little undertow and that's the time when we sort of dump everything in, and you'll feel them under your feet and the next thing you know, they're gone," Hager said.
Leatherbacks are rare to the Carolina coast. Only about eight leatherback turtle nests have ever been spotted here. They have a soft, oily carapace or shell that allows them to adapt to hot and cold temperatures. Seeing the baby leatherbacks on Holden Beach was a rare sighting. And one the old and young will not soon forget.
"It had yellow stripes, and it had long arms and little like little feet," Miriam Altmueller said.
There are still 15 turtles unaccounted for. Volunteers are going to give them a couple more days to try to make it out of the nest on their own. After 72 hours, they'll excavate the nest and release any stragglers. Holden Beach volunteers are watching over 30 nests this year. All of them are loggerhead turtle nests except two, the leatherback nest and a green turtle nest, which is expected to have turtle hatch in the next few days.