I fell in love with the gentle giants the summer after Mike died during a snorkeling trip off Islamorada, Florida. Knowing how sad and lonely I was feeling, my friend invited me to join her and her two teenagers on a mini vacation to the Florida Keys. I was a little nervous when they decided to take me swimming with the sea lions in a natural salt water lagoon. Did sea lions like swimming with people? Did they bite?
As we slowly walked into the lagoon to greet our friendly sea lion, I received a sharp pain on my pinky. I jerked my hand out of the water watching blood drip from my finger as a silver fish swam away. I didn’t know fish bite? This supervised swim with the sea lion was getting dangerous! After getting patched up with a band-aid, I did get to touch the sea lion but had enough of that place.
The next day we took a boat out to an area with a coral reef. Given snorkeling equipment and some quick instructions, we were on our own to swim around the plants and look at all the pretty fish. This was more my speed. Floating along near my friend and her kids, we pointed out the different fish, coral, crabs etc.
Suddenly, I found myself floating alone and at the end of the underwater reef. The plant life and rocks seemed to end and were replaced with a sandy bottom. Not much to look at here I figured as I lifted my head to decide which way to swim back to the group. Once I located our tour boat, I turned and swam back in that direction.
Putting my face into the water I could see clearly through my mask. I saw movement to my right near the bottom. I dove down toward the object and came face to face with a giant Loggerhead sea turtle. He had big, kind eyes and saw me swimming toward him. He didn’t seem surprised as he gracefully pushed his large front flippers through the water and came up for a breath of air.
I was torn between looking for my friend or swimming along side this beautiful creature. It was magical. He took a slow dive under and I swam along side at a safe distance as he kept his eye watching me. He didn’t seem afraid, but seemed to know me. Can you see the giant turtle’s soul in his eye? Maybe. I smiled through my snorkel and even felt my eyes tear up with emotion. It was a spiritual experience and one you can not pay for.
That was the summer of 2016. The summer I ran away from all my feelings and pain from the tragic loss of my husband in August 2015. A lot has happened in eight years but I had not thought much about giant sea turtles until last weekend.
My sister and I scheduled a girls weekend on the beach in Manasota key located on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We both live in Florida, but it is different when you get to stay right on the beach. We took early morning walks and swims, found yummy places to eat, small boutique stores to shop, played cards in the air-conditioned kitchen when it was too hot to go outside and then took another swim while watching the sunset. The exciting thing about this trip was that some of the roped off turtle nests on the beach looked about ready to hatch during our stay.
Every year on the Gulf Coast of Florida from March 1st to October 31st, giant Loggerhead sea turtles return to the place of their birth to lay one hundred or more eggs. After 60 days the eggs are ready. Most of the eggs hatch at night so the babies won’t get exhausted by the heat as they walk across the sand to the seashore. That 15 minute trek from the surface of their nest to the water is fraught with may obstacles. Deep footprints or the still standing sand castle present hazards. Coyotes, raccoons, osprey or even pet animals may meet a new born turtle along the beach for a tasty early morning snack.
Once the baby gets to the water, they must swim for two to four miles to reach the Sargassum seaweed line off shore. If they make it that far, they have a better chance of maturing into adults and, when they reach the age of approximately 25 years, returning to the same beach where they hatched.
My sister noticed a nest that looked like it had sunken or indented a little bit in the middle. That could mean that some of the eggs are hatching. She checked that nest several times during our stay as well as a couple of other nests that looked like we might see some action. I even went out with her at 11:00 pm to see if they had hatched, but no luck.
On our final morning we had to check out at 10:00 am. I was still in bed at 7 am when my phone dinged and it was my sister. She said come down to the left on the beach. A baby had hatched!
I jumped out of bed grabbing a cold nitro brew from the frig and rushed down the beach. The entire seaside was deserted except for my sister looking at the ground. When I arrived, I saw the itty bitty little turtle hobbling over the sand. He was actually covered in sand but those little legs were working hard. Several times he would get stuck at the top of a small hill. The front flippers would swim through the air until the forward momentum landed him on the other side of that mound.
In a tall tree among the dunes sat an osprey watching this whole early morning scene. My sister and I assumed the role of guardian. We flanked the baby on either side as he wobbled toward the water. It’s important that the baby turtle walk this distance to the sea. It strengthens their body for the big swim and helps the turtle remember where it was born so it will know where to return when it is time for mating and nesting.
Loggerheads are the most common sea turtle in Florida. Only one out of every 10,000 Loggerhead babies make it to adulthood. Loggerhead sea turtles have been listed as endangered since 1978. Increasing pollution threatens all sea turtles. Loggerhead turtles may die from ingesting plastic bags, fishing line, and other plastic debris discarded by humans.
Scientists along with a crew of trained volunteers work throughout the season to identify and stake off the nest locations. The stakes and orange ribbons are designed to alert humans to stay away. The crew typically records the date the eggs were laid and writes the date on the stake.
Once the eggs have hatched, they wait 3 days before excavating the nest. During that time the babies have time to hatch, imprint on the beach, gain strength and build the muscles needed to swim those 2-4 miles to the seaweed beds. After we escorted our little hatchling to the sea, we saw a group of volunteers excavating a nest. They were excited to hear about the baby who made it safety to the water and noted it in their files. One volunteer reached into the nest as the other lined them up to count. It seemed that out of 100 eggs, only 12 had hatched. This was a disappointment.
During the excavation, the crew discovered a hatchling who had not surfaced yet, The crew asked me to hold up a towel to keep the hot sun off the little guy as he made his way across the beach to the sea. When a well meaning couple stopped by to the see the baby turtle, the man asked why we don’t just pick it up and put it in the water. It’s obvious that is where the baby wanted to go.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past week. We humans want to protect our young so much, that we have forgotten how important it is for them to make that journey on their own. I’m thinking of all the teary-eyed parents I saw on Facebook as they ran out of things to do in their child’s college dorm and had to actually say, “Goodbye. I know you will be OK.” Been there and done that so I know that is not easy! In fact, sometimes everything is not always going to be OK.
Watch the Live Video I posted to Facebook here:
How to help protect Sea Turtles
Keep the lights off.
Our Airbnb used red light bulbs by the stairs and had blinds on all the windows to keep light to a minimum. Sea turtles are extremely sensitive to any kind of artificial light. They are meant to head toward the light reflecting from the moon on the water. Far too often they see lights and end up in parking lots or by buildings so efforts to protect them are often encouraged. This includes using cell phone flashlights on the beach at night or taking flash photography as well.
Keep the beach clean and flat.
We saw signs posted prohibiting beach goers from leaving chairs, umbrellas, trash or toys on the beach. The baby turtles would have a difficult time navigating all the obstacles. Something we noticed was even how the poor hatchlings struggled to climb up and over footprints in the sand. They are designed to be swimmers, not climbers. Sandcastles while fun to build, should be flattened each evening. The volunteers will at times flatten the patch in front of the turtle or maybe fill a a hole created by a child or even a local crab.
Pick up the trash
Even if it’s not yours, don’t leave plastic bags, fishing line or garbage on the beach. If everyone just cleaned up after themselves and took a quick look around before leaving the beach it would make a big difference. Volunteer for beach clean up days in your area.
Use reusable water bottles and shopping bags
Any effort to reduce trash that could land in the sea or negatively affect animals is beneficial.
For more information about sea turtles including educational programs and conservation trips around the world visit SEETURTLES.ORG