I was walking the beach Thursday night looking for loggerhead turtles. I was a guest of the Florida Oceanographic Society’s turtle scouts whose job it is to locate nesting loggerheads on the beach two nights a week for a permitted, guided turtle walk. The turtle walk begins with a talk on sea turtles at FOS’s Coastal Center on Hutchinson Island and ends (hopefully) by witnessing the actual laying of eggs on the beach. It’s a marvelous program in my hometown of Stuart, Florida, during the months of June and July.
But while we were scouting for loggerheads, we came across something even more unique: a leatherback turtle. There are three species of turtle that nest on the Treasure Coast beaches: leatherbacks, loggerheads, and green turtles. The leatherback and green turtles are endangered, so even if you were to see one hauling herself out of the water, which would be rare just given their numbers, you would not be permitted by law to approach her and observe her nesting. The loggerhead, on the other hand, is only “threatened,” and it is possible to observe one nesting on the beach IF you’re in the presence of a permit-carrying turtle guide.
I have seen loggerheads nest before and hawksbill and green turtles while snorkeling in ten feet of water off the coast of St. John, USVI, but I never thought I’d get to see the largest of all sea turtles, the leatherback, the only remaining species in the genus Dermochelys and considered to be the most quickly declining large animal in modern history.
We stood staring at her for several seconds before comprehending what we were staring at. After walking the beach for an hour and a half scrutinizing every dark mass on the beach, it was a surprise when one of the masses materialized into a turtle. And not just any turtle, it was a mama leatherback the size of a chunky coffee table almost at our feet. They are enormous animals, weighing up to a ton; the sheer size of it startled us into stepping back and allowing it to progress up the dunes alone in search of a nesting place.
Animals give birth every day, but watching these giant reptiles emerge from the ocean (its natural habitat), crawl over the sand (not its natural habitat), and dig a hole in which to deposit her eggs is to witness something awe inspiring. Have you ever seen the flippers of a sea turtle? You just try crawling over abandoned sand castles and escarpments left by storm surges on those paddles! Then, try digging a hole with them!! (My turtle scout companion once witnessed a loggerhead with only one rear flipper dig her nest in the sand.) Despite the obstacles, they have an amazing capacity to persevere. And then, by no means the easy part, they give birth, rest for a bit, cover their nests and pack them down to protect them from predators, and make the slow trek back to the ocean, never to see their babies hatch. Thousands of eggs, laid in batches of 50-100, so that one turtle may survive to adulthood. Given the odds, it truly is a miracle!