Posted by: adventuressetravels | September 20, 2011

Turtle Scouts

This June turtles shut down JFK airport in New York City.  Well over 100 diamondback turtles crawled onto an active runway looking for a  location to lay their eggs.  These turtles shut down a runway on one of the busiest airports in the world for over an hour.  It was the year of the turtle.

I have been fascinated by sea turtles ever since the first time I saw one glide effortlessly alongside the Wonderwall catamaran I crewed and swan-dive down into the ocean depths with the grace of an aquatic dancer.

In March, a park ranger friend asked me if I wanted to volunteer in Sebastian Inlet Florida State Park for the summer, helping with the turtle walks I jumped at the opportunity.  I would be delighted to be a turtle scout!

I flew to Florida eager to get started.  But what exactly was I going to be doing?  Helping with turtle walks and tours… I’d gathered that much.  But I didn’t know enough about sea turtles to lead a whole tour myself.  What volunteer work would I be doing?

As the second busiest state park in Florida, there were all types of volunteer opportunities at Sebastian Inlet.  But the positions the ranger thought I would best suited for were volunteering in the Treasure museum, in the Fishing museum gift shop before turtle walks, and as a turtle scout.

A turtle scout… now that sounded interesting.

For almost 30 years, Sebastian Inlet State Park has offered turtle walks, the oldest running  program in Florida and in the United States.   Scouts are an integral part of this program.  The scouts walked along the beach in search of turtles laying their eggs so that the ranger guides could bring the visitors to see this amazing sight.

A year earlier I had gone on a turtle walk and seen an enormous loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs.  Now I had the opportunity to help others.

But that wasn’t what I was starting with.  First I would be volunteering at the gift shop selling turtle chotchkes to the people going on the turtle walks.

Sitting behind the glass cases of the fishing museum gift shop was far from the most exciting volunteer job I’d had.  The minutes ticked past in slow motion, the clock hands moving through molasses.  I tidied, straightened, and organized again but what I really needed was the book that I’d forgotten.  Finally a little before 8, the ranger leading the turtle walk came into the gift shop.

Two of the turtle scouts had cancelled.  Could I help?

Turtle scouts were an integral part of the walks.  They walked along the beach to find loggerhead sea turtles laying their eggs and call back for the group to come out.  Though green and leatherback turtles also laid their eggs in this part of Florida, they were critically endangered.  The park only had permission to show the less endangered loggerheads laying their eggs.

As soon as the ranger’s turtle presentation began, two other more experienced scouts and I hit the beach in search of a turtle.

The cool ocean wind blew Florida’s swarms of biting insects and cut through the humidity.  A sliver of moon peaked from behind clouds lending the beach just enough light for us to see dim shapes on the dark beach.  No flashlights were allowed.  Lights could confuse the turtles.

We scanned the beach for turtle tracks, or better yet, a large dark mass coming out of the waves.  Time and time again, I hallucinated dark forms, but they all turned out to be rocks or clumps of seaweed.  We walked the mile and a half almost to the end of the park without seeing anything before the most experienced scout got a call… the group were finishing their presentation and heading out to the beach.  There was still no sign of a turtle.

We met the ranger and 25 guests before parting ways.  The other two scouts would walk ahead of the group searching for turtles while I stayed with the group bringing up the rear to make sure no one got separated.

I fervently hoped that there was a turtle that night.  That night, visitors as far as California had come in hopes of seeing a sea turtle laying her eggs.  According to the rangers, they had turtles on about 75% of the walks.

The guests were losing hope.  Walking along a Florida beach at night had started out as a fun and exciting adventure, but an hour later several of the older visitors just wanted to see a turtle or leave.  The dissention was growing.  The group was teetering on the verge of a collective decision to go back.

Finally, at 11:30 a call came.  The scouts had found a turtle that had just started laying her eggs.  For the next 45 minutes the group stood in a semi-circle around the turtle’s hindquarters witnessing this miracle of nature.

Every June and July Sebastian Inlet State Park leads approved turtle walks.  This service is free and a fantastic way to spend an evening.  Don’t make any plans after the walk though as turtle walks can, and often do run past midnight.  Not only are the walks wonderful to walk on a deserted beach at night, but this is also a wonderful way to learn about and get close to these incredible prehistoric creatures.


  1. Great “my summer” story.

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