Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Day of Hope

Observing the work of the Florida Wildlife Commission workers as they carefully and skillfully collected the eggs from the turtle nest was interesting and educational. There had been nearly 700 nests that were scheduled to be relocated to Kennedy Space center for hatching and release into the Atlantic. In recent days, the relocation effort have been discontinued in several counties because evidence of the spill has lessened along the coast, and threat/benefit ratio, at least in some places, favors leaving the eggs where they are.

This little story is about an effort to track the movement of a sea turtle that was encountered near Melbourne Beach in Florida, at the Barrier Island Center run by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), a partner of the National Wildlife Federation. But, I get ahead of myself.

The night began as part of a celebration. STC held an event to raise fund for their efforts. That evening, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) presented the Executive Director of STC with a very big check -- the money is to be used to support STC's role in helping to relocate turtle nests to the west coast of Florida and to support on-going work that is being done to save and protect sea turtles that are at risk as a result of the oil spill. In the picture to the left are: David Mizejewski (NWF naturalist and on-screen conservation talent); David Godfrey (Executive Director for STC); and me, John Hammond (Southeast Regional Executive Director for NWF). And in the middle is the big check I mentioned earlier. While the money is going to come in handy in supporting the important work of the Conservancy, it is only a fraction of what is needed to right the terrible wrong that has be visited upon so many species of the Gulf.

After the evening festivities, a few hardy souls hung around to take part in what, for me, was the most memorable part of the evening (and what turned out to be, the wee hours of the morning). We were about to participate in a Turtle Walk -- this is an activity lead by STC, and I assume some other turtle groups that operate along nesting beaches. What I am about to describe, though it sounds harmless, should not be attempted unless you know what you are doing, or you are being accompanied by a trained guide. Turtles, as it turns out, are sensitive creatures, and when females come ashore to lay their eggs, they don't care to be interrupted on their way to build their nest -- go figure. So, there are times when it is appropriate to watch during the egg laying process, and there are times when it is inappropriate to watch -- knowing the difference takes training. Tonight, not only were we to witness a nesting turtle, another objective for the evening was to capture an adult female after she lays her eggs, tag her with a transmitter and release her the next morning. As part of the capture process, a fairly large box was to be built -- it had to hold a 300 turtle, so the dimensions of the box were...well, proportional to the task. As I looked on, I could not help but draw comparisons between the carriage that had been assembled for transporting the captured turtle and images I had seen previously...ok, ok, a little less formal than the the picture to the left, but you get the idea.
Participating in the observation of the turtle nesting gave me a perspective that has changed me. Please bear with me -- I hope I can do it justice -- as I attempt a deep description of my experience of the nesting process on this evening.

The night was dark, the group huddled around each other telling stories to pass the time. There was little light on the beach, but in time my eyes adjusted to the dark, and I could see remarkably well with the sole illumination coming from a few blood red dim flashlights that were being used by spotters. As the larger group chatted, a smaller, well trained group of spotters walked north and south along the beach, searching for turtles that have come ashore and were in the appropriate stage of nesting for the larger group to come and bear witness. As the evening wore on, the moon rose over the ocean, and the light on the beach seemed nearly as bight as day - and yet, still I could not see the finer detail of things, but could more plainly see the shadows. The crowd had thinned; tired by waiting, several people with miles to go before they slept, had bid us adieu. The remaining few, numbering 5 or 6, waited, talked and wondered. The sounds of the waves against the beach, and the cooling breeze from the ocean made it difficult to stay awake. My son, eight years old was, however, alert and chatty, talking with his new friends, and asking questions about the things he saw and heard. David Godfrey shared with us that turtles take about 20 - 30 years before they sexually mature and are ready to produce eggs -- and that many times, turtles laying eggs on a given beach were also hatched on the very same beach. My son and I marveled at the stories of how the young hatchlings make their way to the sea without the help of a mother or father to show them the way. If they survive the journey to the sea, the journey in the sea can be even more perilous with predators who are equally adept at timing the annual nesting patterns and hatching cycles of the young clutches. As we sat there, the waves lapping against the shore, and the nearly full moon above, I thought about the millions of years that this ritual has taken place -- how year after year, groups of turtles would somehow, in ways we have yet to fully understand, make their way "home," for the purpose of entrusting their precious cargo to warm, sun-soaked sandy beaches of the gulf. It is an ancient process that we witnessed that evening...it was happening long before we arrived, and I wondered...what would it mean if the cycle were ever broken? What could I do to ensure that people cared enough to try to preserve these ancient and sacred events.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the waves rush up the beach, and then retreat -- however, there was part of the wave that remained. Just like that. Out of the sea emerged a hulking, silent mass -- almost imperceptible, but for changes in her position relative to object I knew to be stationary, I would have missed her being there altogether. I watched in silence as she slowly made her way to where the grass on the dunes begin.

I could go on...but, I think I ramble -- besides, you get the picture. Earlier in the evening...one of the turtles was gently retained, washed and scrubbed so that a transmitter could be affixed to the carapace (shell).

The next day, nearly 200 people gathered at 8AM to witness the release of the turtle -- a loggerhead. It was an amazing thing to watch -- all these people from near and far, old and young gathering to watch, take pictures, tell stories...they lined up along a rope that had been placed to clear a path for the turtle to make its way back to the sea. People crowded the rope hoping to get a view as she made her way slowly in the sand. With the cheering crowd encouraging her (or scaring her -- who really knows), she made her way closer and closer to the water. Nonplused by the transmitter epoxied to the top of her, she seemed bound and determined to make it back the watery comfort of the ocean. Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, the turtle made it to the water's edge, gathered her strength, and slipped quietly back into her life.
As it turns out, STC names the turtles that are retained and released. The name of this turtle:

1 comment:

  1. The Sea Turtle Conservancy should be commended for all of their efforts over the last 50 years. What would the future of sea turtles be without them right now? Good work David + Team at the Sea Turtle Conservancy.