Sunday, July 22, 2012

Back on Turtle Beach

Like most Florida residents, I moved here from somewhere else - somewhere quite different. I didn't come here for the endless summer, but the sand and saltwater were directly related to my pilgrimage from the heart of the Bible belt to the east coast, the crust of the New World and the beginning of mine.

As a kid I was in awe of Shamu and inspired by every bleached out sea star in the gift shops of Hawaii.  I was fortunate enough to go there as an enthusiastic 11 yr old and nearly went blind on that 2 week trip, staring at the ocean horizon; not daring to blink lest I miss a humpback whale sighting. Even then I knew that April was past season and their migration to the cold waters of Alaska had already begun-  they were long gone.  Still, I stared endlessly and used my allowance money to buy a t-shirt with a very friendly sunglass-wearing humpback cheerfully displaying the false impression that I had actually seen a whale for myself 

Florida, despite its lack of humpback whales, was still the ocean and I jumped at the chance to move over 1500 miles from everyone and everything I knew just to be near it.  Following one opportunity to the next landed me working on the beach doing sea turtle research. This immersion commanded my attention both professionally and recreationally for nearly 10 years.  From nesting to rehabilitation, through live capture and necropsies on the dead, sea turtles has been so integrated in my life that I can honestly say, "been there, done that, got the tattoo." 

Last week I found myself back on the beach recently with another college buddy, Donna.  Scheduling conflicts and a toddler kept me off sea turtle nesting surveys (this year) but I was able to capture this moment and remember why I love the world of turtles and find the process of nesting surveys on the beach so restorative.  As an educator, it would be easy to carry on about sea turtles indefinitely, and anyone who has known me for more than 5 minutes would probably attest to that fact.  There will be more on turtles in the future on this pages, but today I want to talk about one day and one survey.

Sea turtles live in the ocean. That might seem like a silly thing to mention, but I have seen people trying to raise them in chlorinated swimming pools and release poor freshwater sliders on the beach.  Marine turtles have such rare contact with land that it can be pinpointed to just a few reasons:

Perfect loggerhead nest fresh from the previous night
1. They are born on the beach, but immediately go to the water if healthy
2.  Females return as close as possible to the beach of their birth to lay their own eggs
3.  Unfortunate turtles wash ashore when injured or seriously ill
4.  There are always exemptions found in nature. For instance, green sea turtles, both male and female, have been documented basking on the rocky shores in areas of Hawaii. Have NOT seen that on my excursions to the islands, but have seen plenty of pictures and spoken to scientists and witnesses about it.

Sea turtle nesting surveys require permitting, training, and getting dirty.  Since marine turtles are all protected by the Endangered Species Act, not just anyone can go running out on the beach at dawn and go digging around. The survey consists of 3 major situations: nests, false crawls (aka non-nesting emergence if you want to sound technical), and hatch outs.  The last involves the end of incubation when live hatchlings (baby turtles) emerge from the nest and head for the water. This particular survey did not have any new hatch outs.

Donna and I arrived on the beach prior to sunrise, but when the sun finally started to peek out from the clouds we had already been walking and rained on for awhile.  Years ago, prior to becoming pregnant with my now 3 yr old son, I dragged my "I am SO not a morning person" friend out on to a totally different beach at dawn to volunteer on a 2 mile stretch not far from this day's survey.  While walking along we chatted lightly about turtle work in the past and how our lives have shifted, yet here we are again, back on the beach tracking the trails left behind by living dinosaurs.  Awesome.  It was almost surreal this time, though, as she was the lead on this survey, instructing me on how this beach is run. The methods and tracking vary with permit, and it was very cool to be trained by someone that I had trained in the past.  Then Donna said perhaps the greatest compliment I have heard this year... she thanked me for introducing her to sea turtles.

Just like me, D finds the long beach walks cathartic and prime time for self-reflection.  Since conservation work is happening at the same time, one often walks away from the beach feeling productive on a professional and emotional level.  C'mon, it's such a great feeling to know you are doing something for the greater good of the planet and pardon my lofty enthusiasm, but saving the world one species at a time also provides those warm fuzzies which drive humans to do many great things.
This False Crawl is a direct result of the turtle hitting a large sea wall.
Okay, the warm fuzzies have officially cooled off and now here are some real facts about sea turtles for you to enjoy!  Of the 7 species of sea turtles found on this planet (many scientists discuss an 8th, the black sea turtle but that is a discussion that merits its own entry - so I am going with tradition and the Sea Turtle Conservancy on this one), 5 are found in or around Florida's coasts and 3 of those have significant nesting here: loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonia mydas), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacia). 

Textbook green sea turtle track

In Florida, the turtle nesting season technically runs from March 1 - Oct 31, but the height of season is June 1 - August 31. Donna and I were greeted by both loggerhead and green turtle crawls on this day.
Loggerhead crawls are characterized by comma-shaped tracks
Any time a sea turtle comes ashore and does not nest, it is considered a false crawl or non-nesting emergence and can happen for a variety of reasons. Something may have startled the turtle (human or otherwise), or maybe she just digs for a bit and simply doesn't like the quality of the sand and changes her mind - a woman's prerogative after all.

Green turtle tracks look very similar to large tractor tire tracks (see above) and generally range from about 3-4' across.  These mature ladies start at 300 lbs, so they are using all 4 flippers to hoist their bodies up the sand  The center line seen in the photo I took on this survey shows the tail dragging in the sand as she moved back to the water.

Loggerhead turtles are smaller and crawl very differently.  They have an alternating gate, like how human babies typically crawl around with one limb forward at a time.  The comma-shaped flipper marks are made by the back flippers, so the track pictured here is moving to the left. The back flipper track basically covers up the front track, which makes it easy to spot a "stumpy" turtle - one with a short or missing back flipper.  It happens, and while the egg chamber may look odd, these injured turtles can still have successful nests.
This loggerhead nested right next to a large stack of folding beach chairs, so we tri-staked the area to keep it from getting consistently trampled for the next 2 months.
In addition to marking new nests and taking notes of false crawls, we were keeping an eye out for hatched nests.  Roughly 60 days after the nest is laid, all of the eggs hatch and the baby turtles emerge from the nest as a group. This usually happens at night, so a mass of tangled tiny track marks can be seen the following day.  I do not suggest sitting next to a nest all night long exactly 60 days after it was laid in the hopes of seeing a natural hatch out.  I have personally spoken to people who had "been walking this beach for 40 years" and never seen one, and also a family from Indiana that had arrived the previous night/morning on a red eye flight, checked in to their hotel and walked out on to the beach to see the little critters everywhere.  It's like roulette, and all about luck.
I never get tired of beach work!... although I do smell pretty bad when I get home

Part of the survey includes excavations.  Digging up a hatched out nest yields extremely valuable scientific data. Loggerhead nests (what we dug this time) are usually about 2 feet deep overall and shaped like an upside down light bulb.  The hatchlings move around in the bowl portion and since you have 75 - 100 of them moving around down there, the sand packed into the shaft by momma breaks away and filters down under the babies.  This process slowly pushes everybody up in one chaotic group, but sometimes the dudes at the bottom of the pile get left behind, but don't worry - we find 'em later and set them free after taking complete inventory of the nest contents.
Excavation & inventory take place 3 days after hatch out to allow nature to take its own course
We finished the morning after 3+ hours with 3 loggerhead nests, 1 green nest, and a couple of loggerhead false crawls. We excavated 2 loggerhead nests, and ended up with 7 live guys that all went to the ocean quickly. Not a crazy day considering this is a record nesting season for loggerhead turtles across the state, but no nests washed away, no poaching, and no natural predators destroying nests so I would still call it a productive and positive day for turtles.

Happy Birthday! to this little loggerhead hatchling
Since my passion for sea turtles does run so deep, expect to see plenty of photos from past excursions emerge on to the blog.  Going back out for one morning reminded me of how amazing the experiences have been, and that I documented so many of them with photos and videos!

Even if its raining, don't be afraid to go to the beach.  At least it won't be crowded! (now, lightning is a different story and use that big beautiful brain of yours when it comes to playing safe) Dig through those old photos and take a moment to reminisce about those adventures that truly shaped your life.

And, if you aren't sick of sea turtles yet... stay tuned!

1 comment:

Andrea Wilson said...

You are so awesome. What an amazing experience.