I arrived at the shore at the usual time, around a half hour before sunrise, crossed over towards the dunes and headed for the shore. It it wasn’t for the presence of that morning’s Sea Turtle patrol, who had spotted her tracks I might have missed her completely.
Moma green was selecting a spot for her nest and the light was growing. I watched and wondered what she was going through.
Seaturtles of all kinds like to lay their nests under cover of darkness. They’ve been coming to the beach here along the eastern coast of Florida for thousands of years, but within the last half century their nesting grounds have been hugely disrupted and – thanks to our appetites for seafood – their numbers have fallen alarmingly.
“The Southeast’s nesting loggerheads swim thousands of miles through an obstacle course of human-made hazards. Protected beach habitat will help ensure that when they reach our beaches, exhausted and ready to nest, they’re met with true southern hospitality: plenty of food, good conditions for nesting, and safe beaches for hatchlings to leave their nests so they may someday return to continue the cycle of life.”
Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Our beaches here in Fort Lauderdale are thankfully a part of 739 miles of protected shorelines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Thousands of volunteers spend summer nights and mornings looking out for nesting turtles, and its so gratifying to see another new nest being marked out.
But to witness a nest being laid in the morning light is something very special. In six years of walking the sands I’ve only witness one before, and that was in the wee small hours.
Here this green turtle had taken her own sweet time about it, making sure that her nest was positioned just so. Greens (unlike loggerheads, who don’t mind open sands) prefer to position their nests higher up the beach in the undergrowth, so this momma sea turtle was digging her nest between the dunes and the sea wall, and the light was growing.
As the daylight grew I was concerned that this would disturb the whole nesting process – I’ve seen many a ‘false crawl’ where the tracks up the beach suddenly stop and head back to the ocean. But there was nothing at all to worry about. There were a few of us humans keeping a discrete distance, but she paid us no mind.
Once her eggs were laid she began kicking up a sandstorm to cover up the location completely. The mother turtle typically digs a nest cavity about three feet deep and deposits about 100 egg before she leaves them to their fate. Here, after a moment or two to re-orient herself, she set off back to the ocean, her morning’s work finally done.
The hatchlings would not be due to emerge for over six weeks, after which emerge and scramble off towards the water. Those that reach maturity may live to eighty years in the wild – and male turtles will almost never set foot on dry land again.
Sea turtles always return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs many years later. This is something that I find fascinating. Science still hasn’t worked out why this happens – studies are suggesting that unique electromagnetic signals register with the newly hatched turtles, coordinates that remain imprinted like an internal compass that guides them back to the sands of their birth.
There are so many dangers awaiting a new hatchling, and one of the most threatening developments are man made. Once these beaches were totally undisturbed. Now the sea turtles share the beach with thousands of tourists, businesses and coastal residents – these shores are lined with condos, homes and hotels.
It’s the ambient light from these developments that disorientate the hatchlings who instictively head towards the moonlight reflecting on the ocean, (or whatever looks like it) light that discourages the adult sea turtles from laying eggs at all.
One would think that in a city like Fort Lauderdale businesses would be careful and shade lights from shining across to the sands, but on a recent check I found more than six instances of bright lights in just one short block along Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard. It goes to show that awareness of the sea turtles plight is still to reach some newcomers to our beachside paradise.
In Hawaii, there’s an old legend of a green sea turtle named Kauila, who could change herself into a girl to watch over the children playing at Punalu’u Beach. When Kauila’s mother dug her nest, a fresh water spring surged upward, quenching the children’s thirst. Kauila is the “mythical mother” of all turtles, and perhaps of hawaiian children as well.
I’d like to think that we could develop similar stoies to inspire younger generations and create an environment that makes these most ancient of visitors feel perfectly at home.
On Sept. 22, 2011, loggerhead sea turtles worldwide were protected – nine separate populations under the Endangered Species Act, including endangered North Pacific loggerheads and threatened Northwest Atlantic loggerheads. There’s still a way to go but the protection of these wonderful creatures is finally being put into place, both onshore and out in the ocean.
“At last, these precious and well-loved sea turtles will find a safe haven when nesting and swimming along our coasts. Thousands of volunteers that spend their summer nights walking the beaches looking for nesting turtles will breathe a bit easier knowing that these gentle giants will face less danger when they return to the sea.”
Todd Steiner, executive director of SeaTurtles.org.
Sea Turtle Walks
I’m happy to report that June brings a series of unmissable walks so that Fort Lauderdale residents and visitors can get closer to these amazing creatures and learn about their lifecycle. If you get really lucky, you might witness a nest being laid yourself, and see some hatchlings too.
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
Tuesday & Wednesday, July and August, 7-11pm
Museum of Discovery and Science
401 SW 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-713-0930
June 2-4, 9-11, 16-18, 23-25, 30, 2015
July 1-2, 7-9, 2015
Tuesday-Thursday: 9pm to approximately 1am
Sea Turtle Awareness Program
John U. Lloyd Beach State Park
6503 N. Ocean Dr., Dania Beach, 954-923-2833, Group reservations call 954-924-3859.
Sea Turtles and Their Babies
Anne Kolb Nature Center at West Lake Park
751 Sheridan St., Hollywood, 954-357-5161
Every Wednesday & Friday starting July through August
Photo Gallery – Momma Green’s Journey.
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