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Ranger Confidential: Secrets of the National Park Rangers

True tales from the front lines--and behind the scenes--of America's national parks.

Less than one percent of all sea turtle eggs end up producing an adult. The turtle I held in my hand came from a nest of 81 eggs.

I was a few weeks into my first job as a seasonal park ranger at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and it was impossible not to contemplate the depressing odds this single turtle would have to overcome. Impossible not to think of the 80 that wouldn’t make it.

Still, I loved driving the beaches of the barrier islands, searching for sea turtle nests, and documenting their locations. It felt like Christmas morning the day I discovered several turtles fighting their way up the sandy banks of their nest. The baby loggerheads were dark violet, like little bruises.

The one I was holding now flapped its flippers on my skin. It tickled, like a child’s butterfly kiss. I marveled at its delicate touch–and the war zone it would have to survive to reach adulthood. Even if a turtle 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.

Of the lucky ones that reach the ocean, not all will escape the sharks. There are gill nets to avoid, red tides and polluted water, poachers looking for shells for jewelry and meat for soup, and plastic bags and party balloons that float in the water like jellyfish, but, once eaten by a deceived turtle, lead to an agonizing death.

Holding this single turtle in my hands brought my decision about being a ranger into sharp focus. How could I not fight to keep this endangered species from becoming extinct? How could I not risk my life jumping from helicopters or fording rivers so that this baby turtle could someday return and lay its own eggs?

Retirement benefits? Health insurance? Decent housing? On my knees in the sand, with a baby turtle struggling for its life in the palm of my hand, I thought I had found the best–and most important–job in the world.

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