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The Incredible Nesting Sea Turtle

For years I’ve been telling Rich about going on turtle walks when I was little.  My grandparents lived really close to Loggerhead Park, a turtle rehabilitation center.  It was right across the street from the beach.  The center occasionally sponsored walks at night, allowing people to see the adult turtles as they come to the beach to lay eggs, and once I also got to help release a turtle hatchling.  Of course Rich the turtle lover has drooled over these stories.  We’ve always said we needed to go on a walk ourselves…and finally to celebrate our eighth anniversary we went!

The Loggerhead Park Marine Life Center has grown into a full-blown turtle hospital, a non-profit organization funded in large part by donations and grants.  The center now has an impressive turtle museum, containing turtle skeletons and videos.  Outside there are about ten pools, which house the turtles currently undergoing rehabilitation.  The center volunteers name each patient; our favorite names this time were “Sparkles” (a small Green Turtle) and “Kahuna” (a subadult Loggerhead).  Some of the turtle patients were found so covered in barnacles that they were no longer able to eat properly; other patients are missing flippers, often amputated by fishing line; and still others have a variety of diseases.  The turtle hospital diagnoses each turtle and gives him his own cozy pool in which to recuperate.  Most turtles are released back into the wild.  The center is currently providing shelter for Loggerhead, Green, Kemp’s Ridley, and Hawksbill sea turtles.

The East Coast of the Florida peninsula is a major turtle nesting area.  Sea turtles come up on land for just one purpose: to lay their eggs deep within the ground.  Throughout the late spring and summer months (peak time is June and July), the turtles will swim onshore at night, make their way up to the high-tide mark, use their back legs to kick away the sand and make a hole, then lay their eggs.  The process of egg-laying takes about an hour.  Then the turtle covers the eggs, scatters her scent on the nest to fend off predators, and then drags herself back down to the ocean’s waves.  She repeats this process to lay up to three clutches of eggs each season that she breeds.  Six to eight weeks later, the eggs will hatch.  The eggs that are exposed to warmer temperatures become little girl turtles, and the eggs that are kept cooler become little boys.  The little turtles never know their parents.  They hatch alone on the beach, small and defenseless.  They make their way to the brightest light source around, which should be the ocean.  This time of transit from their nest site to the waves is one of the most dangerous times in a turtle’s life.  Many hatchlings are snatched by birds, crabs, and other predators before they get to the water.  The ones that do make it to the safety of the water begin a long swim, several days in duration, out to the warm gulf stream.  There they spend their first years of life, floating along with the sea week and feeding on the small crustaceans that exist there.

Rich and I recently watched a documentary on turtles, called “Turtle: The Incredible Journey.”  It followed the life cycle process of a young Green Turtle hatchling as he made his way out to the Gulf Stream, then migrated up to Canada, across the Atlantic off the icy shores of Greenland, over to the warm Mediterranean, and then caught an ocean current to its maturation and breeding ground in the Caribbean.  What a long trip for a tiny turtle to make!  Turtles are believed to be guided by instinct and by their own internal ability to discern and follow the magnetic field of the Earth.  The thought of the story of this young turtle was certainly in my mind as we prepared for our turtle walk.

The Loggerhead Park Marine Life Center turtle walks are very well planned and executed.  You arrive around 9:00 in the evening, after it gets dark.  They let you say hello to the turtle hospital patients, then they take you into a classroom and give you a presentation about turtles.  In the meantime, volunteer scouts are walking the beach, looking for nesting turtles.  They use infrared spotting scopes to spot the giant turtles more easily in the dark.  The adult turtles are several feet in length and can weigh anywhere between 200 and 400 pounds!  The volunteer scouts watch as the turtles drag themselves out of the water and up the beach.  They make sure the turtle has really begun to lay eggs before alerting the center to bring the turtle walk participants to the beach.  This method is convenient for the participants, but it is especially important for the turtles, as it minimizes the amount of human interference in their nesting process.  No lights are allowed on the beach, not even LCD lights from phones or cameras.  Turtles will move to the brightest light around, not knowing the difference from your cell phone and the ocean!   The volunteers use special red flashlights that do not confuse the turtles. They supervise the group and help you form a “U” around the back of the turtle, who is undisturbed by people as long as the people stay behind her.  They shine the red flashlights down the nesting hole, and you can see the bright white eggs as they slide out of the turtle and down into the hole.  Our turtle was extremely efficient, and laid her 100 or so eggs in less than the usual hour.  Then she slowly covered the nest and pulled herself back to the sea, stopping several times to rest.  Our last glimpse of her was as she disappeared under the breaking waves.

The strongest message that Loggerhead Park tries to communicate is the importance of protecting these special animals.  After all, they have been swimming in our oceans and nesting on our beaches for thousands of years, a whole lot longer than any of us people have been around!  Watching these gentle giants come onshore to lay eggs was such a special, humbling experience.  It makes you realize how small we all are, despite our technology and gadgets.  We can all do our parts to protect our world to make it a better place for all of us to live.

This morning, I got up early to photograph the sunrise, and I came across a sea turtle nest.  It’s easy to find the recently-laid nests, because they still have fresh tracks where the mother made her way out of and then back to the ocean.  The eggs are buried a foot or two deep in the ground.  As I looked up and down the beach, I thought I saw the faint traces of many tracks, washed flat by the waves but still slightly discernible.  Loggerhead Park has counted over 2,500 Loggerhead nests in 2012 so far already, just on the Jupiter, FL stretch of coastline.  It is estimated that just 1 in every 1000 of the hatchlings will survive until adulthood.  Those that do survive often return to the exact same stretch of beach where they were born, to lay their own nests.  As I stood looking at the nest in front of me, I was just in awe…

So if you are a photographer and considering a turtle walk, I would strongly recommend doing it!  Consider taking an IR camera, which has much better night vision than a standard digital sensor.  I got special permission to take my camera on the beach after showing that I had turned off the LCD.  Flashes, of course, are not allowed.  I dialed in the highest ISO to get my egg picture above, and then I converted it to black and white in Lightroom.  A tripod wouldn’t really be appropriate in the small group setting, but it would allow you to get better low-light shots of the turtle tracks and the turtle herself.  I still have a lot to learn about low-light photography!

And finally…Rich can’t give me a hard time about sitting and watching bird nests for hours on end anymore…last night he spent over an hour watching a big black blob on the beach lay eggs!!  Happy Anniversary! :)

Want to know more about photographing at Loggerhead Park?

Check out my Loggerhead Park page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!