NPS photo

NPS photo

The Most Asked about Excerpt From

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, And Dying in the National Parks

One of my duties as a Cape Hatteras ranger was to drive the beaches early each morning and search for signs of freshly laid turtle nests. If I found a nest below the tide line or close to civilization, I dug up the eggs—which resemble Ping-Pong balls—carefully loaded them into a bucket of sand, and buried them right side up in a safer place. Then I documented the nest and kept track of the incubation schedule

Eighty-five days after I moved my first turtle nest, I found scores of tiny tracks leading from the nest to the ocean. It felt like Christmas morning when I discovered several baby turtles still fighting their way up the sandy banks of the hole. I expected the turtles to be brown or greenish-yellow, like their mother, but the baby loggerheads were dark violet, like bruises. I picked one up and held it in my palm. The turtle flapped its flippers on my skin. It tickled, like a child’s butterfly kiss.

It hurt to think about the chances against this one turtle surviving to adulthood. To a baby sea turtle, the world is a war zone. Even if the nest eludes the noses of raccoons and dodges the destruction of a hurricane, some eggs fail to hatch. Of the ones that do hatch, not all the turtles make it to the water. Ghost crabs snatch the hatchlings in their claws and drag them down into their holes. Gulls swoop in and pluck them off the beach. Once I found a carcass of a turtle baked to death by the hot sun. Of the lucky ones that reach the ocean, not all will escape the hunger of sharks. There are gill nets to avoid…red tides and pollution…poachers looking for shells for jewelry and meat for soup…plastic bags and party balloons that float in the water like jellyfish but once eaten by a deceived turtle lead to an agonizing death.

Less than 1 percent of sea turtle eggs end up becoming an adult. The turtle I held in my hand came from a nest of eighty-one eggs. The odds were depressing. Yet this turtle continued to flap its flippers against my skin. Undaunted by the giant holding it, stubborn in its desire to reach the water, compelled by a pull as irresistible as gravity, this turtle wasn’t giving up. This turtle wanted to make it. This turtle was so precious.

How could I not join the fight to keep this endangered species from becoming extinct? How could I not risk my life so that “my” baby turtles could someday return and lay their own eggs? How could I not give up retirement benefits, health insurance, and decent housing for a job this important? How could my parents talk any sense into me? Now that I had been down on my knees in the sand with a baby turtle struggling for its life in the palm of my hand.

This was my induction. My call to duty. My pledge of allegiance to the park ranger credo: “Protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from themselves and each other.”

Up to this point I had been killing time—-spending a summer living on the beach with my ranger boyfriend until a better opportunity came my way. Now the stakes were clear. There were things in this park that needed protecting, and it was my job to protect them.