Juno Beach, Florida - At 10:03pm, the walkie-talkie crackled with an important update.
“Two turtles are past the high-tide line,” a scout reported from Juno Beach.
The presenters at Loggerhead Marinelife Center copied that and then forged ahead with their talk on sea turtles. Kate Ufford and Sue Thompson had passed around turtle skulls and displayed images of flipper prints. They were now moving on to hatchling behaviour.
“Just what everybody wants to know at 10:20pm, right?” joked Kate from the front of the classroom.
On a June evening, the educators had been distracting — I mean, teaching — us about sea turtles for more than an hour. They covered the diets, anatomy, habitats and mating rituals (no love, just procreation) of loggerheads, leatherbacks and green turtles, the three main species that nest on Florida's east coast. We listened and asked questions, but we were ultimately biding our time until The Call.
“It's like in the 1950s,” Kate said, “when you're sitting in the hospital waiting room.”
At 10:37, the walkie-talkie spoke again.
The female turtle was laying her eggs, the scout said. Come quickly!
Quiz time: What do Florida and Oman have in common?
Sand, yes, but also loggerheads. Lots and lots of loggerheads.
The 100-mile stretch from Melbourne Beach to Palm Beach County is the second-densest loggerhead nesting area in the world, after the Middle Eastern country. However, the largenoggin turtles don't have a lock on Florida. Leatherbacks and greens, both endangered species, also dig-and-drop on the state's shores.
Last year, the turtles were busy. According to LMC researchers, 2 877 females laid more than 1.2 million eggs on a 9.5-mile section of Juno, Jupiter and Tequesta beaches in Palm Beach County. Nearly 933 000 babies hatched in a wiggling swarm. Among the three species, loggerheads posted the highest number of nests, with 10 387; leatherbacks and greens followed far behind with 268 and 988, respectively. And although loggerheads are considered locally threatened and globally endangered, they broke the 2012 record by 44 nests.
All eyes are now on Season 2015, which started with the first loggerhead nest sighting in mid-April. The number has multiplied to 8 006 nests, with less than three months remaining. At this rate, the Lady Loggs could set another record performance.
The center in the seaside town of Juno Beach leads guided turtle walks four nights a week in June and July. The outings are part of its outreach and educational efforts, which include a small exhibit hall with aquariums and environmental displays, kids' programs and a gift shop. (It's feel-good retail, with all proceeds benefiting the nonprofit.) The facility's primary focus, however, is to rescue ailing turtles, nurture them back to health and return them to the wild. They treat, on average, 50 to 70 turtles annually; last year, they released 25 sea turtles and more than 500 hatchlings.
“We don't have turtles on display. We are a hospital,” said Charles A. Manire, a veterinarian and director of research and rehabilitation. “We see sick and injured turtles, which tells us what's happening out there in the water and what's happening to the population.”
Loggerhead Marinelife Center started in the 1980s as a passion project led by a Juno Beach resident nicknamed the Turtle Lady. Eleanor Fletcher was growing increasingly concerned about the plight of the local wildlife, especially the hatchlings. She noticed that many of the wee ones were crawling inland instead of seaward, drawn to the artificial lights of civilization. To raise awareness, she organised classes about conservation in her house and later in a room above her husband's real estate office.
Over the years, her mission and focus expanded. Today, Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which opened in its current building in 2007, is considered one of the most preeminent sea turtle hospitals in the United States. This year, Manire and his veterinary staff discovered a revolutionary treatment for chronic debilitation syndrome, a life-threatening ailment that affects a majority of the incoming shelled patients.
I visited on a jubilant day. On June 9, Reef was finally leaving LMC, returning to the ocean after two years of treatment and rehabilitation. (By comparison, the typical stay is four to six months.)
“For me, it's all sweet,” Manire said. “Everything we've done for this turtle was for this moment.”
The loggerhead had a thick medical file, including chronic debilitation syndrome, severe pneumonia, lung lesions and a crushed shell caused by a collision with a boat. Reef struggled to float, so an orthopedic team broke and raised the crushed carapace, thereby freeing the back flippers that had been immobilised by the injury. In the final months, the staff had built an artificial ledge in a tank. Reef's instincts to shelter kicked in; a discharge was imminent.
The center usually releases the reptiles from Juno Beach in a rock-star spectacle that attracts hundreds of cheering supporters. But it wanted to give Reef a head start and decided to transport the turtle by boat to a spot several miles offshore.
Before loading Reef into an ambulance, staff members fastened the loggerhead to a gurney and pushed the stretcher around tanks and visitors to the indoor hospital. The treatment space includes a pharmacy, operating room and bloodwork lab, and guests can watch the action through a large window. They placed the tranquil critter on a scale and jotted down 158.8 pounds, a healthy weight gain since 2013. Reef stretched its neck and opened its jaw, a powerful vise able to crack the shells of conches and whelks with one chomp.
“No biting,” an assistant cooed.
The center had just received an ultrasound machine, and the crew was excited to use the equipment to reveal a big secret about Reef.
“It's a girl!” a staffer exclaimed. (Turtles hide their gender well.)
A technician showed me the image on the screen and pointed out the undeveloped egg follicles, which was also a clue to her age. Reef is a millennial!
After receiving a tag on her flipper, she was one step closer to freedom.
“She took off like a rocket,” Manire told me about an hour later.
The doctor didn't have much time to dwell on Reef, however. Lilo needed him. The green sea turtle had arrived the previous night limp and weak. Manire suspected a neurologic disorder caused by a toxin. He was heartened when the turtle shimmied a little inside its box.
The hospital has 15 “beds” that are usually occupied by turtles in various states of recovery. The tanks fill an open-air courtyard with easy viewing from the top or side windows. Each patient comes with a short bio covering the who, where, when and how-in-the-world-did-this-happen. For example, Audubon and Mayflower arrived from frosty Massachusetts in January. Their diagnosis: “cold-stunned.” Nacho Libre was an inspiration among the Yankee contingent. On June 15, the Kemp's ridley turtle paddled off in Florida's Canaveral National Seashore Sanctuary.
Laddie is one of the newer cases. Rescuers had discovered the loggerhead stranded near a Currie Park fishing pier on Juno Beach, with fishing line wrapped around three flippers. I am no turtle therapist, but Laddie looked quite content swimming laps around its private pool. (No need to feel sorry for the animal's solitary confinement. Turtles are inherent loners.)
Checkers is a repeat guest, and a favourite among staff, volunteers and visitors. The green sea turtle first arrived in 2011 with buoyancy issues and returned last year with a fractured shell that was probably caused by a watercraft. The patient swam by the viewing window with a balletic stroke and then tried to climb the walls like Spider-Man. Perhaps Checkers was trying to escape. (Not an impossible feat: The moray eel in the exhibit hall jumped out of its tank and landed on the floor.) Or perhaps Checkers was practicing her crawl for when motherhood called.
On the evening turtle outings, nesting sightings aren't guaranteed. About half the time, mothers will perform a “false crawl,” in which they drag themselves up on the beach but then U-turn and return to the water. To avoid spooking the turtle, scouts will wait until she has excavated her nest chamber and started dropping her eggs. While performing this activity, she falls into a trance that even the loudest ooher-and-aaher might not be able to break.
“It's a prehistoric process,” said Jack Lighton, LMC's president and chief executive. “The whole experience is very humbling.”
After receiving the go-ahead, Kate and Sue rounded up our posse and led us across the street to the beach. Lounge-y red lights lined the roadway, a muted illumination system installed to protect the turtles. Condo units overlooking the water were dark or dimly lit. We wore black clothes and left our cameras and flashlights behind.
At the beach access point, a volunteer warned us to not smudge the turtle tracks, which researchers would study later. I stepped over a print that resembled a single Firestone tire mark. Several yards up, a scout named Gay crouched by a 150-pound loggerhead. A red light illuminated the turtle's hindquarters.
Typically, a mother will lay about 100 eggs and take 60 to 90 minutes to complete the task. However, tonight's turtle was moving faster than a baseball pitching machine, unleashing half the usual number of eggs in about 30 minutes. By the time we reached her, she had already covered up most of the hole.
I sat several inches from her back flippers, which she used like a pair of gardening trowels. She scooped up the sand and patted it down. Again and again and again. Then she started tossing sand around with all four appendages, blanketing her shell and my hair in the process.
“When she is flinging sand,” Gay said, “she's doing a good job.”
Someone suggested that we name her. One guest threw out Ruby Tuesday, in honour of the night of the week. We settled on the more obvious Sandy.
After concealing the nest, Sandy inched forward and slowly circled to the right. We stood back to give her room.
Gay told us that she might return to the beach three to six more times this season to lay more eggs. But for tonight, she was done. She heaved her body down the slight incline of the beach. At the water's edge, she let the wavelets draw her forward and away.
“She's a tired mama,” Gay said.
The eggs were now on their own. It was them vs. everything: dogs, birds, raccoons, ghost crabs, even sandcastle-builders. After a few months of incubation, the newborns will pop out of their shells and scram for the seagrass beds in the Gulf Stream.
About one out of 1 000 to 10 000 hatchlings will reach adulthood. If Sandy's offspring survive the tough odds, they will return to Juno Beach in 2045 and continue a long loggerhead tradition, nesting where they were born.
IF YOU GO:
Loggerhead Marinelife Center
14200 Hwy. 1, Juno Beach, Florida
The last turtle walk of season takes place July 31. It starts at 9pm and can run until 11:59pm $17 (about R170) with a reservation. If the event is sold out, visitors can possibly grab a spot as a walk-in. Just arrive at 8:30pm and bring $20 in cash.