So many people have asked me what exactly we DO on turtle patrol, I thought I’d try to explain it as succinctly (when have I ever been succinct?) and clearly as I can. We’re leaving this afternoon but I need a break from cleaning and last minute packing so here goes. I know I’ve said a lot of this before so a lot of you can just skip this whole post. But for the “newbies” or those who want a refresher, read on.
The turtles (in our area, loggerheads mostly) mate in the Gulf (great video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_44-x_gWE7Y) and then the female drags her 300 pound body up on the beach, usually as far up the beach as possible) to dig a hole about 18 inches deep (looks a bit like an upside down lightbulb…wider and rounder at the bottom). She deposits about 100 eggs, neatly fills up the hole, throws a lot of sand all over the place to disguise her nest (actually the thrown sand is our signal that there IS a nest) and then drags her 300 pound body back into the Gulf.
Volunteers arrive just before dawn every morning, usually in pairs. Our team has more than two, partly because we all like each other and refuse to move to other zones and partly because people like me take off in the summer and would be leaving someone high and dry. And this is not a job you want to do alone. We stop at our “bin” and load up on data books, stakes, measuring tape, mallet, rubber gloves, trash bag, markers and pens.
We walk the beach looking for turtle tracks and when we find them we follow the incoming tracks until we get to a turning point. Now comes the question…Did she lay eggs or not? Sometimes it’s really clear…the thrown sand, a nice oval mound, some scarping and clear ridges. Those nests are great. Sometimes it’s not so easy and then it’s a judgement call. IF we decide it’s a nest, we mark it with a stake and fill out an inordinate amounts of data in our book. We GPS the nest and pace it off so we can describe exactly where it is if the stake gets washed away in a tropical storm or hurricane. Stakes are marked with the Zone number, the nest number, the date, the address, and the initials of the patrollers who found the nest.
If it’s NOT a nest, we fill out similar data in another book. These crawls are called False Crawls. The mama came up and for some reason decided this was NOT where she wanted to lay her eggs. As I said to someone on the beach today, she changed her mind unlike humans who can’t change their minds once labor starts!
Every tenth nest needs more careful measurements, triangulation, back stakes, and verification. That means not only do we decide, “Yep, this is a nest” but also we need to determine exactly where that mama laid those eggs. Every time I think we’re getting good at reading the signs and finding those eggs in the first hole we dig, we have a nest that is impossible. But if we call it right, it’s great. We dig down and usually just before you come upon the eggs, the sand gets soft and there’s even a little air space and you know you’re close. It is so wonderful when your finger actually touches one of those eggs. They feel rubbery and are about the size of ping pong balls. Once we’ve touched one egg, we stop digging. We don’t want to disturb the nest any more than we have to. We fill in the hole carefully, record all the info and move on.
So that’s it. And in the olden days, it took an hour or so to make your way up the beach, record the info and head back to the cars. Not so this year. Twenty-one nests last Tuesday on our zone alone (which is slightly less than 3/4 mile long) Two verifications…I thought we’d never get off the beach. I usually go barefoot and it’s not problem but last week, the sand got hot as we moved into late morning. Our zone has 371 nests as of this morning. And over 600 false crawls. The beach is loaded with stakes.
This past week (if it’s like other years) is usually the peak of the season. Hope that’s right because I’m leaving and it’s a ton of work. By the time I get back on the beach, the babies will be hatching every night and I’ll write do a post called “Turtle Patrol 102”!