What I know about sea turtles would fit into a thimble. I’ve spent the last 6 years studying birds so that I can easily identify them, recognize their preferred habitats and anticipate their movements and reactions. I think it might be safe to say that I’ve had some success with photographing birds of all types.
But sea turtles? Sure, I know they live in the ocean and I know that as reptiles they lay eggs. And I know that they lay their eggs on dry land. I also know that some species are threatened and others are endangered. But beyond that, my education in these prehistoric creatures is pretty thin. That is until recently.
My friend Jess Yarnell and her husband Rich are big sea turtle fans. They even have Save the Sea Turtle license plates and sea turtle bumper stickers on their cars. Over the years Jess has written about and told me stories of their annual beach encounters with sea turtles. Their favorite annual event is to go on a night walk and witness the turtles laying eggs in the sand along the Atlantic beaches of Florida. But even her stories never really got me to explore these beautiful creatures any further. I just didn’t see the point of driving 80 miles over to the beach to witness turtles laying eggs in the middle of the night. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to get any decent photos in the pitch black of night.
But then I started seeing other friends posting photos of their sea turtle encounter in the hours just before and after sunrise and this got my attention. Now I could see the advantage of driving over to the coast as I would have at least a chance to photograph a sea turtle that you could actually see. Sea turtles generally nest at night, but some will come out of the water late enough that they are still on the beach at sunrise. So a couple of Saturday’s ago, I took off at 4:00am to head to the beach so that I could be in place and witness something I had never seen before. It was then I realized just how lucky you have to be to see a sea turtle.
I arrived at the beach and it was still pitch black. On the eastern horizon, the sun began to light up the sky, but I couldn’t see anything between the parking lot and several miles out in the ocean. That’s because the communities along the east coast of Florida have a “lights out” policy from April to October. That’s prime nesting season for sea turtles and the artificial lights from homes, parks and street lights disorient the turtles and cause them to go the wrong way when heading for the water. The turtles are expecting the light to come from the east. So if the artificial light to the west is brighter than the light in the east, they get confused and go the wrong way. I learned that this was one of the reasons why their numbers were declining.
So I’m standing at the stairway to the beach waiting for the light to get a bit brighter so that I can actually see where I’m going. Eventually it was bright enough to press on, but now came another big decision. Do I go left (north) or right (south)? There is a lot of beach out there and how do I know where the turtles will be? Of course I don’t, so I decided I would go south and take my chances.
I walked about a half mile along the surf line looking for turtle tracks. There were dozens of turtle tracks in the sand, but all of them had return tracks too. That meant that the turtle had already come up on the beach and returned to the water. Eventually I found a single set of tracks going up the beach, but I couldn’t see a turtle. There were three people standing together near the dune and they looked like they were watching something. Could it be a nesting turtle? If so, why couldn’t I see the turtle?
So I walked up to them and I learned why I couldn’t see the turtle. There was a large depression, a hole actually, in the sand and in that depression was a green sea turtle that was covering up her eggs. The hole was deep enough and the sand piled high enough that you couldn’t see the turtle unless you were right next to her. One of the individuals watching the nest was a sea turtle volunteer who took the time to answer my questions about what was going on. [Click the images to view larger. All images were taken with a telephoto lens at a safe and respectable distance from the turtle under the supervision of the turtle volunteer present.]
The turtle had been digging her nest chamber and laying her eggs for a couple of hours. It would be another 30-45 minutes before she finished covering her eggs with sand by using her giant flippers to move the sand and work her way out of the hole. The process of nesting for a sea turtle is exhausting. Just the effort for her to haul herself out of the water and move 20 yards up the beach above the high tide line was exhausting, not counting the effort to dig such a deep hole, lay the eggs and cover up the eggs. And this was no small turtle. She was estimated to weigh 300+ pounds!! I had struggled just walking on the soft sand that morning, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for her with nothing but 4 flippers to move her body around.
The volunteer told me that so far this year they had counted 8500 nests on a 20 mile stretch of beach. They estimated that by the time nesting season ended, they would have in excess of 10,000 nests on that stretch of beach. The turtle lays about 100 eggs in each clutch and can nest 4-5 times a year. Only 1 out of every 1000 eggs laid make it to adulthood. Sea turtles do not reach sexual maturity for 20 years. With such a low survival rate, you can see why it is important to do everything possible to secure their survival.
A recent article on NPR quoted sea turtle experts who said that in the early 1980’s, they only counted 30-40 nests on this stretch of beach. This 20 mile stretch of beach has the highest concentration of turtle nests in the US and the highest number of green sea turtle nests in the world. Having over 10,000 nests is a huge improvement over the last 35 years. For me, it was exciting just to see one and the best part was when she began her long journey back to the water. That’s when I could finally get some decent images with my camera.
The eggs will incubate in the sand for approximately 60 days depending on the species. The mother will never see her offspring and will never know whether they survive. After laying her eggs she gives them a final wave goodbye hoping that many of them will survive.
There is more to tell about the plight of the sea turtle and I will share more in my next post. Perhaps this one singular event that I witnessed will forge a new interest in my photography and conservation. I have so much to learn and much more to share.