Finding sea turtles by lightning

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As a biologist, last night I found myself asking a very odd question. I was standing in the dark listening to sand being tossed around out in the darkness. I could see some tall beach grass being disturbed every time lightning illuminated the area in front of me. I asked myself,  “when a sea turtle lays an egg, is it warm?” A sea turtle is cold blooded, but out of the water and struggling up the beach I figured they might get a bit toasty before coming out. To begin this story, last week I have been house sitting. Interestingly, I was actually encouraged by the owner to bring people over and have a “damn good time”.  The house has a large screened in pool and I thought what the hell, let’s have a little party with my friends and fellow grad students. I told everyone to come on over Friday night for food and beer. However, in true to form of me being a huge dork and in my apparent pursuit to stay single and lonely, what did I do Friday morning?  I called everyone back up and told them not to come. Because god damn it, I would be playing with sea turtles.

I had the opportunity to spend the night out with a few people that worked with the State Environmental Protection Dept who stayed up late into the night to watch for sea turtles coming to shore to lay eggs.  I jumped at the chance and told the cute girl I was planning to wittily impress with humor and poor BBQing skills to…. go do something else with her life. Sea turtles come to shore for two reasons. Sometimes they will haul their hulking bodies onto land to rest or sun themselves. This can often be seen in places like Hawaii. The other reason is for the females to come ashore in the dead of night to lay eggs. Five of the world’s 7 sea turtle species can be found in Florida, but only four regularly lay eggs in the state. The loggerhead turtle is easily the most common and this is what I expected to see. Even though they are somewhat common it is not every night that a turtle comes to shore to nest.

We arrived at the beach and gathered for our game plan. Our friend and biologist who helps protect and manage the sea turtle population on this particular stretch of coast was our guide.By spreading ourselves (5 of us) out over a couple miles of beach and utilizing radios we could effectively cover most of the park.  The sun set at 8 o-clock and we all sat around for a long night. You can’t use flash lights as that can distract and disorient the turtles. So moon-light and light pollution from some condos down the coast was the only way to watch for turtles climbing out of the waves.

The moon was behind us, illuminating the waves, however a thunderstorm was barreling down the coast a few miles off shore. Being alone on dark beach watching lightning flash off in the darkness over the ocean, once again made me realize this is why I love being a biologist.  After about an hour of little walks up and down the beach, we got a radio call that a “real big” female had come to shore about a mile from where I was. After walking to the road I got in the car and headed over. Upon arrival, I was stoked to find out that it wasn’t a just loggerhead turtle, but a green sea turtle.  Greens lay only  about 60-500 nests a year in all of Florida. So I had come on a very lucky night! One person checked on her as she excavated a hole for her eggs. Standing about 5o yards away as to not disturb her, I could still hear the sounds of big flipper-fulls of sand were tossed about. After abou45 min she has started to lay. Once a female starts laying, very little can disturb her. At this stage females are often described as being in a “trance”. Upon approaching this female for the first time, I immediately thought “WHOA! she is a HUGE green!!!”. I have seen hundreds of greens in the pacific, but this was easily one of the largest I had ever seen. Probably pushing 350-375 lbs. I was astonished. Using a small red light we could now peer in the hole she had made, I saw for the first time in my life a sea turtle actively laying eggs. They dropped into the whole every 20 sec or so; in singles or a few at a time as she pushed. As we quietly watched this huge female laid well over a hundred eggs. As the hole filled, the biologist I was following reached in and pulled out an egg. I hadn’t voiced by question earlier but realized I was about to find out. He handed it to me and…. yes, yes it was a little warm, not hot but certainly above the air temperature. Inside a baby sea turtle would form over the next 60 days. After which, it would climb through the sand, surface and head towards the water. The chances that this little turtle would survive to reach the size of its mother is astronomically small. Predators, pollution, boat propellers and human encroachment take a massive toll on growing sea turtles. It takes up to 30 years before a female sea turtle may be sexual mature and lay her first batch of eggs. Holding the egg, I turned around to shield the female from my light. I used my phone to snap the above picture. I handed it back to our guide and he slipped it back into the nest with its siblings. Later as the lightning lanced through the sky and the rain started coming down in earnest, I watched her trundle back into the waves and out to sea. We watched from further down the beach as her shell disappeared for the last time into the dark water,and I started to think of a new question: “What are the chances that this beach will even still be here in 20-30 years once that little egg wants to return like its mother?”

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