Posted by: adventuressetravels | July 23, 2010

The Wild Turtle Chase

It was a dark and stormy night.  Well, that may be a slight exaggeration.  The cloud cover did blot out the moon and stars, but distant fireworks shed some light on the damp beach.  After all, it was the fourth.  We wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

The Fourth of July is traditionally a time of fireworks, festivities, and raucous celebration, but this year our little party stood on the misty beach praying for the distant explosions to end, the lights to dim, and the night to go silent.  Cringing at each explosion we clustered around T, the park ranger leading our turtle walk as he told us about these incredible creatures.  After all, as amazing as getting to see a sea turtle lay her eggs was, the walks were to help raise awareness about these animals and their fight against extinction.

Turtle nest markers

Ranger T patiently explained protocol.  We would follow him, silently, about 20 feet back staying as close to the surf as we could so we didn’t disturb any turtle tracks.   Rangers would come and mark off the spot with the eggs the next day with orange tape.  If he found one he would flash his red light seven times signaling for us to stop.  As soon as he was sure everything was okay and the turtle was in her laying coma, he would signal for us to approach.  

It was imperative that we followed these directions to the letter.  We absolutely could not disturb the turtle, he stressed.  If a turtle thought there was danger then she would abort her egg-laying mission and return to the sea.  She would do this three times before finally she had to let her eggs drop into the water.  Loggerhead sea turtles, the species whose nesting ground this was, were already a threatened species.  We did not want it to join the other species of sea turtles on the endangered list.

When T was certain we were all ready he disappeared into the inky night.  When he was a safe distance away he flashed the red light once for us to follow.  T couldn’t have been more than 20 feet ahead of us but as hard as we strained our eyes, we couldn’t make out his form in the darkness.  We walked along the shore, white tops of cresting waves the brightest thing in sight, straining to see anything in the inky darkness.   He was still up ahead of us, wasn’t he?

Suddenly we stopped in our tracks: a red light winked at us from the blackness.  He had found one!  Moments later Ranger T appeared, out of breath.  In a hushed voice he told us that we were in luck.  The turtle was already laying her eggs.  No flash photos until she was on her way back to the ocean.   The red light wouldn’t bother her, but other lights might, and Ranger T didn’t want to take any risks. 

However, we could stand around her, and even touch her without disturbing her.  When a turtle is laying her eggs she goes into what’s called a laying coma; through the egg-laying process her mind is on lockdown.  Every part of the brain is utterly focused on one thing.    Though she is completely vulnerable, this is for survival of the species; if she weren’t and anything startled her then her entire batch of eggs could be lost. 

As I gingerly laid my hand on the massive dark shell, an eerie green light appeared around my palm. I snatched it back in dismay. Sea turtles were one thing, but I hadn’t bargained for some kind of Harry Potter in turtle form.  Was some kind of unearthly fire going to consume me if I disturbed the turtle as she laid her eggs?

“What is that,” one of the other couchsurfers echoed my thoughts.

Ranger T reassured us.  The glow, or bioluminescence, wasn’t dangerous.  It wasn’t part of the turtle either.  She had probably rested in an area of the ocean with dinoflagalence, little bacteria that glows when disturbed and some had attached to her shell.

Loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs

Ever since I had seen turtles soaring through the water off the coast of Florida adroitly angling their wing-like flippers to glide or dive I had been fascinated.  I had desperately hoped to see one laying her eggs on the Georgia beaches.  My hopes had been sky high when my host M and I had gone to Tybee Island and I had seen the turtle walk signs, the turtle statues, lampposts, and chotchkes everywhere.    Much M’s amusement, I had believed him when he told that the groups of people walking around with flashlights on the crowded Tybee sands were looking for sea turtles and asked if I could join them.  But I did not seen shell nor flipper of one my entire time in Georgia.

I marveled at the huge animal curling her hind flippers up each time she laid one of the glistening white ping pong balls in her shallow hole.  Half an hour passed, forty five minutes and the fine mist had turned into a light drizzle.  The warm Florida night had turned chilly. 

Did we want to go back? Ranger T asked. 

No one moved a muscle.  We wanted to see this thing through to the end.  To watch her make her way back to the water.  Finally she was finished, after resting a bit she buried her eggs and started the scattering process.  Turning in circles she flung sand in all directions with her flippers in order to camouflage the location of the eggs, protecting them from predators.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle going bac to the ocean

When she was halfway back to the ocean Ranger T gave us the go-ahead and we turned on our cameras.  The mother-to-be heaved herself along the sand back to the water the bright waves as her guide.  Resting at intervals she took her time getting back to the waves, and no surprise.  She had expended monumental amounts of energy.  Dragging her 200 pound mass up to dry ground, using only her elbows, digging a hole using just her feet, and on top of that laying about 150 eggs!  We breathed a collective sigh of relief as she finally reached the water and slipped back into her natural environment.

I felt so lucky to have been able to witness something like this.  The whole thing was unbelievable; a 200 pound creature that spent her life at sea and somehow, without map, compass, or navigational system was able to find her way back to the same sands she was born on decades earlier.  This had definitely been the best Fourth of July ever.

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Responses

  1. This is the best one yet! So wonderful you shared it with us. Hope they can keep surviving
    Love,
    Mom

  2. This was amazing. I’ve seen a sea turtle during my first scuba diving lesson, that was already such a priceless moment! Hope one day I can join you on one of your many adventures!


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