I am a turtle addict. I can remember the first time my mom showed me a snapping turtle in a bucket that she had captured while she was mowing the grass. I quickly gained an appreciation for its strong jaw as my mom warned me not to put my fingers too near its mouth. My brother and I captured painted turtles in our backyard when we lived near a swampy retention pond for a summer. Caring for them for a few days before releasing them back into the neighborhood. I’ve seen these roaming reptiles on sandy trails in Central Florida, in the depths of the Caribbean during a dive, and lounging on a beach on Hawaii’s North Shore. But my favorite turtle memory is the time I snorkeled in Barbados and gave a loggerhead a big hug. I’m not sure what draws me to these creatures. Perhaps I connect with their nomadic ways or they just remind me of my carefree childhood, but be it terrapin, tortoise, or sea turtle, they have special places in my heart.
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When I came across the opportunity to witness a sea turtle nesting at Canaveral National Seashore I made reservations for two and told Geoff he was on board whether he wanted to be or not. (It’s a good thing that he likes this stuff nearly as much as I do.)
A few days after placing my reservation, instructions with where and when to meet arrived in the mail and I began counting down the days until June 10th.
The day arrived and it was my last day of school for the year and has actually turned out to be my last day of school forever since I will be starting a new job soon. Geoff and I drove out to the coast and grabbed dinner in Titusville at Crackerjacks, a tiki bar on the river. The service was non-existent, but the beer was cheap and the shrimp was good.
Traffic and dinner took much less time that we anticipated, and we had about two and a half hours to kill, so we explored the park.
First, we drove to the manatee overlook, but saw nothing but the running water and other disappointed onlookers. I had little hope of seeing a manatee, the water in the ocean was a balmy 80 degrees so, they are not looking for warmer river waters at this time of year. We did pass a little gopher tortoise as we were driving. Hopefully that was an indication of our luck for the evening.
Next we drove to the beach where families were packing up their cars and heading home for the evening. We virtually had the beach to ourselves, so we walked for awhile dodging waves and looking for seashells.
As the Turtle Walk time approached, we drove to the visitor center to meet our group. Upon arrival a $14 per person donation was requested. Upon payment we chose two seats in a theater where Park Ranger Ashely proceeded to inform us about the types of turtles that nest on Playalinda Beach.
We heard facts about greens, loggerheads, leatherbacks, and Kemp’s Ridley. And out of all that information my fun fact take away was that spotting a leatherback nesting was like seeing a unicorn and out of the hundreds of eggs laid, only one in one thousand will survive to adulthood.
As Ashley informed us of this fact, she busted out two baby food jars holding a loggerhead and leatherback hatchling that did not make it. Crabs, birds, raccoons, humans, you name it and it is a potential threat to sea turtle hatchlings. It’s no wonder that they are on the endangered list. If it’s not predators getting them, its lack of habitat or the ingesting of garbage that ends up in the ocean. After hearing Ashley talk and show us what has been removed from rehabbed turtles’ stomachs, I will never purchase another balloon in my life. Something like 95% of released helium balloons end up in the ocean, and since they look like jellyfish (a turtle’s main diet) they end in their bellies.
Finally it was time to head back to the beach. In a caravan of cars we followed the ranger and her volunteer to a spot. By this time it was completely dark outside. No lights of any kind are allowed on the walk, and cell phones must be turned off. In fact, no filming or camera equipment of any kind is allowed on the walk.
We could have waited until 11 P.M. in hopes of seeing a turtle, but luck would have it that we saw one after about 45 minutes of waiting. We walked about a quarter mile walk near the waves to the scouted nesting site. When we were parallel with the giant loggerhead, our group of 18 silently approached making sure that we stayed behind her shell and out of her eyesight.
I of course knelt down in front and not 15 seconds later was watching this loggerhead drop leathery ping pong sized eggs into the nest she had just created. One of the volunteers pointed a red light into the nest so that we could see what was happening without disturbing the turtle. With a steady rhythm lady loggerhead released eggs in groups of two or three until she filled up her nest about a half and hour later. I lost count around 60 something eggs, but was informed that loggerheads typically lay between 100 and 110 eggs per clutch. During nesting season that same loggerhead can nest between two and eight times.
Most of our group tired of watching the event after about 10 minutes. Me and another girl were fixated during the entire event, and had to be told to move down towards the water so that mama could cover her nest and lumber back to the ocean.
In the time we waited to watch our turtle drag herself back to the ocean, my husband, Mr. National Geographic, spotted the shadow of another loggerhead pulling herself out of the ocean and up the beach. When the moonlight hit her just right, I could see her as well.
Our turtle walk was coming to an end. There would be no witnessing that second turtle lay her eggs. That was okay with me. It was nearing midnight, and I seen what I wanted to see. It was time to leave nature to take its course, but not before marking the nest. I have the coordinates of the nest we witnessed and hope that we can make a trip back late July to see if the hatchlings had emerged. And so after a lovely evening I headed home satisfied with my newest turtle fix.