Toronto Star, Sept 29, 2017: JUPITER, FLORIDA—She was working hard. By the time I got to the beach around midnight, the loggerhead turtle had dragged herself about 30 metres up from the water, dug down a metre or so with her flippers and dropped as many as 100 leathery eggs into the hole.
When I joined the dozen or so people in front of the hotel, the roughly 250-lb loggerhead had finished burying her eggs and was camouflaging the nest with sand, using her back flippers and then her front. She’d rest for a few minutes and then start moving sand again.
Surely, she wasn’t expecting an audience.
For millions of years, female loggerheads have been laying eggs on the very Florida beaches where they hatched themselves. They lay as many as six “clutches” of eggs, one every couple of weeks and only get around to mating every few years.
This stretch of Florida beach from Jupiter to Boca Raton is one of the most nested by loggerheads anywhere in the world. In 2016, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) in Juno Beach recorded more than 16,000 nests in about 15 kilometres — one every metre or so. Most Canadians miss the egg-dropping (followed by egg-hatching) frenzy because nesting season runs March to October, pretty much opposite to our escaping-winter season.
The turtle I see is making her nest near stacks of blue lounge chairs (the beach is cleared every night for the turtles). Her eggs laid and buried, she starts turning her body on the nest, slowly, like an hour hand on a big clock. When, finally, her head points to the ocean, she starts moving to the water.
The fan club follows, silently and mostly respecting the rules to keep a distance and keep phones (and light) away. A couple of guys are shining small red flashlights — turtles can’t see red. (I do however, when one jerk takes a few pictures with his flash on). The turtle enters the surf, her eggs left on their own to hatch in a couple of months to try to beat their predators and the odds. Only an estimated one in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood.
We head back to the hotel, the guys with the red flashlights having chalked up yet another sighting while others, including this Canadian, thrilled to see their first turtle nest. After all, the loggerhead travelled thousands of kilometres to return to this very beach, where I had lounged around the afternoon reading a magazine and dozing in the sun.
While I just followed hotel signage to the sand, scientists think turtles are imprinted with the beach’s magnetic field when they hatch.
“They have their own built-in GPS, they don’t need to stop and ask directions,” says Randy Dwyer, one of the 350 volunteers at LMC. He’s briefing a group before leading a night walk along the beach, one of many offered by conservation groups in the area. Strict state rules insist the tours hit the beach only after the turtle starts laying her eggs. “That’s when they go into a trance,” Dwyer says. “Like a turtle epidural,” an eager turtle enthusiast jokes.
Conservation centres also host summer camps and other programs about Florida’s three species of turtles — the giant leatherbacks, the smaller greens and most commonly, the loggerhead. They are all listed as endangered locally and threatened globally. Hotels and homes along the beach are required to turn off their lights because they may confuse mama coming up from the water and later, her hatchlings trying to find it.
While the guides tell you to keep your distance on the beach (and drop to one knee if another turtle approaches) you can get up close and personal with turtles in tanks at conservation centres. At LMC, a turtle called Gaston (at least until he’s released) appears to be posing for me in a tank window.
A less happy site awaits visitors peering through the LMC’s hospital window. A teenage loggerhead is dead on a stretcher, killed by a boat strike. But with growing awareness, more divers, boaters, anglers (locals and tourists) are taking better care of the turtles in the water and watching out for their nests on the beaches.
In the morning, I ran to my balcony to see my turtle’s nest in daylight. It took me a minute to place it because there were a dozen or so. As far as I could see, turtle tracks were leading up and back to the water. An ATV adds loops around the tracks, the driver hopping off to place wooden stakes near each nest.
Umbrellas, lounge chairs and people soon sit atop the masses of turtle eggs buried deep in the sand. As the day winds down, chairs are stacked, teenagers toss a Frisbee near the waves and somewhere out in the blue, turtles are waiting for the black night and their turn on the beach.