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Only thing bigger than this turtle was her mistake
By Ron Wiggins - Staff Columnist

Palm Beach Post

20th June 2004

The cry went up from the beach:

"There's a really dumb sea turtle down here trying to drown her babies!"

That wasn't quite what the spotter for the turtle watch group said, but that was the gist of it. A really, really, big, fat loggerhead mama had crawled barely 30 feet out of the surf line, and contrary to the way these things have been done these past 400 million years, she had turned her face back to the sea and was flipping sand.

A serious turtle crawls well west of the high tide line and finds her some nice dry sand. And then she digs with her head pointed westerly, certainly not to the ocean.

Not this turtle. She was pointed east, as if doubtful about the whole business. And because her "nest" -- if she followed through on digging one -- was well inside the high tide line, her nine dozen eggs would perish under the next flood tide. The group guides and turtle watchers couldn't make sense of it.

Debbie Fritz-Quincy, director of Hobe Sound Nature Center Inc., which sponsored the turtle walk, suggested we wait a bit. Chances are that the turtle had momentarily lost her bearings and would move higher onto the beach after reflecting on it. Only by crawling westward toward the dunes could her eggs ripen under warm sand to emerge in 60 days as healthy turtlings.

Did I say turtlings?

"She's digging!" came the cry from the spotter.

And when loggerheads dig, they lay. Fritz-Quincy invited the two dozen turtle watchers down to the surf to witness the miracle of infanticide.

Do's and don'ts

Two hours earlier the group had met at the Hobe Sound Nature Center on U.S. 1 south of Bridge Road to watch a film on the do's and don'ts of turtle watching. The first rule is the only one you need unless you run across a nesting turtle by accident: always book a turtle watch with a certified group leader. This year's turtle walks are fully booked; reservations for next year will be accepted in April 2005. For more information, call the Nature Center at (772) 546-2067, or the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge at (772) 546-6141.

We learned that between May and September, 14,000 loggerheads, many weighing up to 350 pounds, crawl up on Florida's east coast beaches every year and lay eggs in the sand. Even with such prolificity, the odds against a batch of 100 eggs hatching and scuttling to sea are fearful. Predation from raccoons, armadillos, foxes, and now -- coyotes -- reduce the odds of maturing and finding the ocean to 1 in 1,000.

And if the ocean wasn't dangerous enough, tar balls, plastic, drift nets and shrimping kill tens of thousands of turtles a year. Condo and highway lights confuse turtles, prompting some to cross highways, thinking they are going back into the ocean.

Our chances of seeing a nesting turtle in the Hobe Sound Refuge that night were pronounced good for those willing to stay up until 1 a.m.

And here we were well before midnight marching down to where a turtle seemed determined to nest in a flood zone. Well, if that's what she was going to do, no reason why our group couldn't gather around her in the darkness and with discreet application of pencil beams and red flashlights, watch the whole thing. In darkness barely relieved by starlight and the gentle phosphorescent glow of the foaming breakers, I was able to make out the back of the shell.

"Scrich, scrich, scrich."

This was the whisper of wondrously supple rear flippers, digging and tossing away sand. As my eyes became accustomed to the light, I sensed more than saw the outline of what struck me as a very large shell.

"Say, this is a pretty big turtle, isn't it?” I whispered to Desta Hanson, a herpetologist for the Nature Center, and a guide.

"My gosh, she's very big!" said Hanson urgently. She shone her beam down to the business end of the egg-laying apparatus. The turtle was popping eggs into the sand like a Pez dispenser. Each egg was perfectly spherical and the size of a ping-pong ball and slick with natal slime.

As the guides' beams played around the nesting hole, Hanson took particular note of the folds of fat erupting from beneath the shell. "Oh, look at the rolls of fat -- this is a very well-fed turtle."

Careful with the lights

Care is taken not to shine light into the eyes of the turtle, so when the guide suggested we have a look at the head, only then was the full bulk of the animal appreciated. "Look at that head!” Hanson marvelled.

Head? This mama had a head and a neck like a water culvert or a keg of nails.

"I'll bet that head goes 30 inches around," I ventured.

The loggerhead was one for the books. Fritz-Quincy brought out a tape and measured the turtle from the front edge of the shell to the tail. "Forty-seven inches!" she announced. The largest anyone in the group had seen in hundreds of outings was 42 inches. The egg-laying machine in question exceeded 400 pounds.

Desta placed a ruler across the turtle's head, far enough behind the head to prevent an accident. "They have been known to bite," she said. And then: "Ten inches."

Do the math. Pi times a diameter of 10 inches is 30 inches and change. This loggerhead was about as big as they come. Did her sheer tonnage explain why she was unable or unwilling to crawl the extra 100 feet required to deposit her eggs in safety? Or was it possible that some circumstance of the beach triggered the response that sets into motion the birthing ritual?

The guide said that a single female might deposit three or four clutches of eggs in a season. Perhaps Gigantia had already done her bit this season and would do more before September.

Or could it be that this particular turtle was wired wrong and had been firing blanks since her first honeymoon 30, 40 or even 100 years ago?

No transplants

When she left the clutch, couldn't a conservationist rebury them up by the dunes?

"No," the guide said. "Somebody will mark them, but they won't be moved. The eggs won't hatch, but they'll be recycled in the sense that valuable nutrients will be returned to crabs and other creatures that find them. Nothing is wasted."

The dowager turtle, after resting a bit, began flipping sand over her doomed children and then smoothed the area to confuse predators. "It doesn't work," Hanson said. "I've seen armadillos go right up to the crawl marks from the surf line and follow them to the nest and start digging."

Eggs that do hatch are born gender-optional. Sand temperature determines sex. Cold sand hatches all males. Warm sand produces nothing but lady turtles. Tepid sand yields an even division of girl and boy turtlings.

Onlookers were invited to touch the reptile's back. It was firm and so sandy that I can't claim I touched turtle at all. "Watch this," Fritz-Quincy said. And with that, she briskly rubbed the turtle's shell, causing it to glow briefly from phosphorescent algae growing on the shell. Neat!

By now it was pushing on to midnight, and if the egg laying was exhausting, the loggerhead was rested and rose slightly on her flippers and began breast-stroking toward the water a scant 40 feet away. Where would she go?

"Anywhere she wants to go. They're great swimmers," replied our guide. "Loggerheads have been seen in New Jersey, the Gulf and all through the Caribbean."

Or maybe she had plans for the evening.