"Survival of the fittest" was being written on the sane in tiny turtle tracks. Thirty one baby loggerheads were struggling across the Assateague Island beach, driven by instinct toward the rising sun and the sea.

Flaring above them were seagulls, which if not kept at bay by the human observers would have snapped up most or all of the hatchings. Their progress was so painful that one of them was stymied by a girl's shallow footprint.

"Can't we just put them in the water?" asked Laura, after 10 minutes had passed without the first turtle reaching water.

"We think they need the experience of crawling across the beach." Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Ed Britton said. "Apparently the smell and taste of it is what they remember when they come back to the same beach to lay their eggs, maybe 10 years from now. We're already cheating a little bit, starting them off halfway across the beach, and on a rising tide."

Actually Britton was cheating a lot, because the eggs had been taken from Cape Island, S.C., last spring and buried in protected nests at Assateague in hopes of reestablishing loggerheads in the northern part of their ancient range. The project was started in 1969 by J. C. Appel, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and may be beginning to pay off.

"We've had six of them show up on local beaches so far this year, the most ever," Britton said. "At least one of them was a 'false crawl,' with with no eggs laid, but any visit is encouraging; she may have gone ashore someplace else later. These turtles are so particular about returning to their home beach to lay that we have to believe our visitors are graduates of the program."

The entrance exam was proving too tough for several of this day's hatch. Two of them were deformed, with nubs instead of flippers, and they lagged far behind. Another seemed to have some of his wires crossed: instead of extending one front flipper in unison with the opposite rear one, as all well-bred turtles do, he was employing the butterfly stroke, and not very effectively. And the runt of the class, perfectly formed but no bigger than a man's thumb, just pooped out.

It seemed ridiculous that any of the turtles, starting out at an inch and a half and weighing an ounce, could survive to become a four-foot, 300-pound cruiser of the open oceans of the world. "Oh Lord," one of the observers said, "Thy sea is so great and Thy turtles are so small."

Twelve minutes into the course the first few pupils made it to the water, only to find the going even tougher. The runout of each spent wave swirled and tumbled them, and a foot gained was followed by yards lost. Some were stranded on their backs, others seemed to be drowning. It was hard not to help them. In fact it was impossible; Britton and biological aide Debbie Corbin did it too.

Laura and her sister Karen picked out several laggards for special tutoring. Hawkeye, after showing some early foot, turned north along the beach. Karen pleaded, and pointed, and rebuked, but he plodded on toward Ocean City. When she stamped her foot right by his ear he finally got the message and turned to follow in his brother Herman's flippersteps. Laura's Charlie, Gracie and Julie finished at the foot of the class, just above the two dropouts that Birtton decided to hold for a day in hopes they would gain strength.

"We had thought to hold some of the weak ones for perhaps a month, to fatten them up once they started eating, which takes a week or so," he said. "But it turned out that they are programmed into a swimming frenzy for about the first 10 days, and they need that to get beyond the coastal waters. We really have to feel our way along in this project, because so little is known about the life cycle of the loggerhead, especially during the first year."

Manager Appel makes no bones about the uncertainties of the thing. "We don't know the answer to almost any question you can ask," he said. "By the end of this season we will have released about 6,000 turtles, which seems like a lot until you consider how large this planet of ours is. It is a drop in the bucket, and we have no assurance that the scale of this thing even approaches the threshhold level for reestablishing them.

"What is the mortality rate among the hatchings we get into the water? Have we handled them right so they get the proper fix on their home beach? What does it do to them to be picked up and carried around by humans? Are the ones that have been showing up around here lately really our transplants, or just rogues?

"The only thing about this program that I am sure of is that it costs so little [3,000 this year, or about $3 per released loggerhead] that the return in publicity alone justifies it. I'm not talking so much about making the refuge look good as I am about the public awareness it generates. It informs people that the species is endangered, has been pushed out of its range by man, and perhaps puts them in mind of endangered species in general. But I won't claim that we're doing anything significant to help the loggerhead, because we can't prove it."

Biologist Britton was more confident. "When we babysit them in the nests and across the beach we reduce the mortality by something like 85 percent," he said. "The loss rate in the egg stage, from infertility, flooding and predators, is so high in nature, plus the ordeal of crossing the beach, that those little guys must be pretty viable once they get into the water, at least past the bluefish and dogfish and so forth. I've got to think that we're seeing some of our early batches showing up and that more and more of them will be coming along."

As author Philip Kopper points out in his new book The Wild Edge, the chain of circumstances that put loggerheads and all sea turtles in danger involves much more than commercial fishing and egg gathering:

"Settlement drove the puma away from the Atlantic coast. With the demise of this bit cat, raccoons multiplied and became major thieves of turtle eggs. The discovery of how young loggerheads find their way to sea revealed another of man's unintended intrusions into the natural scheme of things. Hatchlings head for the brightest light; the subtle difference between the sky over land or over reflective water is eclipsed by electric power. The halo of a city beyond an inland horizon attracts young turtles at night. . . so do headlights along a coastal highway, or a few beach walkers carrying flashlights. Quite simply, any human development or presence can shorten the odds that a few newly hatched turtles will reach the relative safety of the sea . . ."

Some of the early years of the program were disasters because nobody knew how to transplant the eggs without addling them, and 1976 was a total washout when storms destroyed most of the South Carolina source nests. The final major refinement of the process will come next season, when Chincoteague personnel will take boxes of sand from the refuge and put them under Cape Island females while they're actually laying eggs.

"It may sound kind of silly, but we just don't know whether the developing turtles may be sensitive to the scent and taste of the sand the eggs are buried in," Britton said. "It will also minimize handling of the eggs, which has to be a plus, and since our people have to drive down there anyway it's no big deal to take along some sand."

He picked up loggerheads Nos. 28 and 29, the last of that dawn's release, which were clearly exhausted by their efforts to penetrate the ocean's unruly edge, and carried them out beyond the surge line. "We may be fooling ourselves by trying to fool Mother Nature here," he said "but it would be wrong not to try."