10/29/18 Miracles in the sand

Miracles in the sand
School employee dedicates her summers to sea turtle conservation
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 10/29/18    
Reprinted with permission.      

Suzan Bell’s office pays homage to one of her greatest loves: sea turtles.

When she and her husband purchased a home on Oak Island in 2002, she channeled her lifelong love of turtles and tortoises into the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, protecting mothers and babies during the nesting season from May to October.

“We get up about five o’clock in the morning and we go out on the beach, and what we’re looking for are tracks,” Bell said. “We’re looking for the mama’s tracks that say she came out of the ocean. And once we find the tracks, we follow the tracks up, and we try to determine if she laid a nest, where she would have laid the eggs, or if it’s a false crawl, you know, what happened. And if we determine that it is a nest, we actually get on our hands and knees and dig in the sand … to verify that it is a nest and that there are eggs there.”

If they find a nest, they determine if the area is safe — somewhere far away from beachgoers and high tide — and move the eggs to another location if necessary.

“We try not to move nests because it should be as natural as possible,” Bell said.

Generally, nests hatch 55 to 65 days after the eggs are laid.

For staff with the Protection Program, that means around-the-clock observation starting on the 50th day and continuing until the turtles have hatched and made it to the water safely.

“It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it, I couldn’t even tell you the number, it is exciting every single time,” Bell said. “I still get goosebumps. I still get excited. I still get that feeling that this is such a miracle.”

An Alamance County native, Bell graduated from Eastern Alamance High School and worked in classrooms for a number of years before moving to ABSS’ central office to become an administrative assistant for Dr. Angela Bost.

“Now that I’m out of the classroom and over here, if a teacher calls me and says, ‘We’re doing a project on this or that, would you come and speak?’ I’m always willing to go to share, and I love it,” she said.

The kids get to see fun pictures of sea turtles hatching and even a “triplet egg” with three turtles inside of it, but they also learn an important lesson: clean up after yourself, and recycle.

Trash left on beaches can block mother sea turtles from laying their eggs, and trash floating in the ocean has catastrophic effects.

A study published Thursday, Sept. 13, in the Australian nature research journal Scientific Reports found that even small bits of plastic can be lethal, with the risk of death increasing significantly for sea turtles that have ingested 14 pieces of plastic or more.

Larger pieces, like plastic bags or straws, can cause suffocation.

Bell drinks from a metal straw each day, which is one example of how students, and adults, can reduce their plastic use.

“I always ask them to tell their parents, ‘Let’s pick up what we brought. Let’s leave only footprints in the sand,’ because this is their home, not our home,” Bell said.

And when her old students drop by to visit, the first question they ask her is, “Ms. Bell, how are the sea turtles?”