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."