Monday, June 14, 2010

Turtle tracks

Early June in northeast Florida. It means, as our Lorie reminds us, that it's time for gardenias to bloom, scenting gardens and front yards with such a perfume as might have been brought across endless sands and mountains in caravans of camels and traders in centuries past. Soft petals of brightest white burst into flower one after another, covering the plant, the collective perfume so powerful as to be all but visible. A single blossom, cut and placed in water, is enough to scent a room.

June means the onset of hurricane season for us, too. And this year it also heralds the onset of potential disaster we do not hazard to begin predicting, here on the east coast, at least not yet. As the pleasure of gardenia blossoms remind us of happy summers long past, of hot weather really coming, of the grass-mowing season, of long evenings and cool drinks in the shade of the oaks, so does this other, deeply alarming hint of approaching evil scent the air with something like poison. I promised I wouldn't write of it in detail here, and I won't. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers far more talented and informed than I am will take it on, have taken it on. I mention it only as a reminder of the timing and of that which is precious to all of us, and vulnerable. So: June means Turtle Season comes into full swing. This means female sea turtles find their ancient ways to ancestral homelands, lay their eggs, do their immutable part in the continuation of their species.

In the photo at the top right, you can see two sets of tracks quite clearly. Flowing down toward the ocean are those of the turtle, as she came out of the sea to find her nest site; alongside are those she made as she returned to the sea. Parallel to the breaking water are the 4-wheeler tracks made by the Guana volunteers and staff who monitor the nests and help ensure their success. The turtle clearly came up to the high (west) side of the beach during the night; the turtle folks came along shortly after daybreak to investigate. If you could see this without the limits of the photo you'd note how deeply the sand was imprinted by her flippers as she came laboriously up the beach. You'd be able to see how close alongside are the return-trip imprints.

When Rodney and I were kids our parents and their friends had parties on St. Augustine and Vilano Beach (and I'm sure the rich people in Ponte Vedra did the same thing). They'd start early, spend the day on the beach and then dig a pit, build a bonfire, boil shrimp, roast hot dogs for the kids, and stretch the parties out into the night. If a turtle came ashore to lay her eggs, people would stand around and watch. In previous generations of ignorance, people would wait for the eggs and then collect them, or excavate nest sites and steal them. One turtle egg was said to be as rich as three chicken eggs. They were a delicacy. In ignorance people prevented turtles from finding their way to their historic nesting sites, inhibiting reproductive success; in dangerous ignorance they actually prevented it. The turtles were nearly exterminated.

Conditions have improved for sea turtles. They're not ideal, of course, but in my lifetime change has occurred. People know now that turtles are disoriented by artifical light, and it's controlled by law so residents and visitors must control the ambient light on beaches at night. The nests are carefully spotted, marked and protected by law and by dedicated individuals. Some work for the State of Florida at the Guana site; others are precious volunteers. Still more are those who can afford to donate and help ensure funding for the effort. (n fact, you can, too. Adopt a sea turtle nest.)

As I've described here before, the turtle watch is so closely kept that it's possible for a nest of hatchlings to be collected on the day they hatch and released carefully after dark, helping the tiny baby turtles avoid a wide range of pitfalls. Even now only a very small percentage survive to adulthood in the wild.

It's a new moon, or it was this weekend when I took these pictures. A new moon, my friends would remind me, is the best time for planting, for sowing, for making new beginnings. And there were a LOT of new nests this weekend, and at least one attempt, documented on the left, in which a turtle made the long, difficult trek to the west and for some reason returned to the sea after nothing more than a brief rest. You can see her tracks coming and going, making a nearly perfect U-turn. Though it's hard to see in my imperfect photo, she left the imprint of her body in the sand before the long walk back. With no exaggeration, from her nose to her tail she was at least 3 feet long and she'd started life as a nestling small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. Honest. The photo of the baby turtle was taken last year, and unfortunately has no comparative object for perspective. Trust me on this: it would fit in the palm of your hand, tiny flippers and all. This one is courtesy of Tara Dodson of St. Johns County, who helps oversee the health of the turtle population in our county.

Any of a hundred things could have prevented the digging of the nest, the laying of the eggs. It could be that the nest site wasn't just right for her. Maybe she wasn't quite ready to lay her eggs; maybe she walked back down to the breakers and came back later that night, or the next night. Maybe she found a better spot. I'd have to ask someone with more knowledge of the habits of sea turtles even to make an educated guess. Something kept this turtle from digging this nest. But there's good news. The nests are numbered in order of their discovery. And I can tell you for sure that before last weekend, the highest number Rodney and I saw on a nest was 10. Tonight we saw one numbered 23. Here are the tracks, leading up to the high tide line and back, obviously inspected by our turtle patrol as you can see from the overlaid track marks.

We watched something called "Through the Wormhole" on one of the science channels the other night. It provided several theories for the origin of the universe, including one based in physics and described in elegant equations, one based on theological contemplation, and one (intriguingly) based on the hypothesis that out of left-brain anxiety about the end of existence is born a right-brain counter balance in which the brain creates a sense of the spiritual, a belief in holiness, by which that anxiety is alleviated. One theory, however, is positively Gene Roddenberry-esque. It proposes that we are all the creations of an elaborate entertainment, the brain children of ourselves sometime in the future. Leaving aside religion for the moment, this last is ineffably appealing to me. It implies, as Roddenberry's Star Trek did, a hope for the future, a belief that we are somehow able to save ourselves from ourselves. If it turns out to be true, perhaps we are somehow able to save our sea turtles from ourselves, as well. Hope springs, my dears.

Baby turtle photo - Tara Dodson, St. Johns County Environmenal staff member


  1. I missed you, Angie. Good to have you back


  2. I missed you, too, and this is an amazing post ~ how I love those sea turtles! I watch for their nests on Anastasia Beach and the most I've ever noted on this beach is 14. One early morning I discovered the tracks before the park rangers ~ that was truly a miracle for me, to see the turtle tracks with no tire tracks crossing through them!!!

  3. Michelle & Lulumarie - thank you both. It's always good to be missed. And what a GREAT story about finding a nest before the Turtle Patrol or rangers saw it...what a gift. Did I tell you guys about the time Rodney and I saw the Guana turtle guy excavacting a nest? It was amazing...I gotta write about that one of these days.
    Love, love!

  4. Missed you too. Sorry for the lack of comments for the next few posts. Major busy with living arrangements (you know the story already). So my responses will be sporadic at best. But I'll read everything with wide-eyed fascination. Promise! Those turtles are amazing. Wish I had something like that around these parts to watch and take part of, if only at a distance.

  5. Michelle H.! Thank you for reading - I DO know the story and am grateful for any time you find to read and comment. I know you don't have turtles, but a friend at work just came back from YOUR town, which he really liked a LOT, AND he went up the cable car you have pictures of on your blog. When he started talking about it, I said, "Oh, my friend Michelle..." and it was great fun. Thank you again...sending love and light while your situation changes.


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