Sea Turtle Magic

Sea Turtle Magic

The first dive was amazing. We were winding through the coral caves of Palencar Reef. Sponges and corals were pristine. The arches, alive with color, were surrounded by blue…ocean blue…the color that seems to run through my veins

As I was meandering through exquisite passageways I thought it was most likely the most beautiful dive I’ve ever done. Over 600 dives in magnificent caves of the Yucatan, reefs of the Caribbean, the Pacific kelp forests….none were as deeply beautiful as this colorful swim through winding tunnels of reef.

The surface interval was relaxed and fun and then the second dive….”Duck in a canyon to get out of the current,” he said. It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with current that wasn’t bashful. But that’s not what I remember so much. It’s the three hawksbill sea turtles that were casually munching along the top of the reef….where the current was ripping.

The first one had two friends greedily watching for tiny creatures uprooted with the amazingly strong foraging jaws of the turtle. In order to stop and take video and photographs I had to touch the sand….and thankfully with gentle kicking I was able to stay within inches of the huge turtle and capture the best video of my life. Not to mention the absolute thrill of being within inches of the strong jaws of the turtle….who completely ignored me.

The gray angelfish kept blocking the camera, swishing their tails against my mask and hands. What a problem to have…right? Photobombing fish.

The third hawksbill was massive in size. When I swung around to face the current the turtle walked on the bottom just beneath me. I could sense the sea turtle’s energy even though we never touched. My belly hovered just inches above her massive back as she munched on a sponge.

Hours later I still feel it, the strength and fortitude this being has. To survive from a golf-ball sized egg to this size took wits, strength and perhaps a lot of luck. But I’m the one that feels lucky….so amazingly lucky.

After spending five years as a sea turtle volunteer working mostly with unhatched nests and hatchlings as they crawl to water, this was a special treat. And while I’ve had nice encounters with sea turtles while diving, none have come close to any of the three connections I had today.

My mask was inches from the back of the largest turtle and the colors and details of the plates on the shell were incredible. The spotted skin of the head and flippers was brilliant and the eyes looked at me with unconcern…which made me so happy. I was an accepted part of their world, not something to be feared.

Most of what I experienced was visceral and so I reach for words that don’t seem to be there. Somehow I came away feeling the strength of these sea turtles had been shared and my bones now know a little bit more about what being a sea turtle is all about and I carry a little more of their magic in my heart.

Going Home

Going Home

One of my favorite experiences as a wildlife photographer is to be present when an animal that has been hospitalized and rehabilitated is released. This loggerhead sea turtle would stop and dig her  beak into the sand and wait for something to register. While I don’t have a reptilian brain I guessed she was getting her bearings using her sense of smell. Can you imagine after being captured–injured and sick–after living in such a magnificent place as the Gulf of Mexico…dealing with confinement? And then that glorious moment when you realize you have made it home. Home! What a celebration…for everyone.

Pretty Work

Pretty Work

_TSL6105I heard the phrase, pretty work, echoing in my fatigued brain as I was crawling into bed at 1am. It was a busy night on the beach. My life coach has used the phrase for as long as I can remember.

What a night!! But this was last week, the night before Hermine brought us high tides and surf….and nothing else. But that’s for later in this tale.

Nest B25 was ready to tarp and I went as a tarp helper and to take photographs of sky and waves. I helped dig the trench and release 17 babies from the previous night that had been in ICU. Magic. Beautiful sea turtle magic.

_TSL6840I was leaving because the nest wasn’t that busy, it was my third night in a row of sea turtle work and three other women were there. But just as I got to the car, my friend got a call that babies were under a house nearby.

Cathy and I ran and met Jan and another seasoned team member. Tourists had found them every freaking where. We didn’t know the source of the turtles. I was putting them in my shirt (basket made from shirt) and they were tickling my belly. We were finding turtles almost to the road. Cathy and I found about 14. Jan found some. Jim did as well. Tourists put about 50 in the water. I tracked and tracked and finally found the nest. Just a little sink hole in the sand almost at waters edge with high surf. I helped Jan excavate it and we had almost a complete boil. And every turtle was within three or four feet of water and they went to house lights. We figure 70 made it to the water.

_TSL6931Stop a moment and think about that. The hatchlings were only a very short distance from the Gulf of Mexico and they chose to go to lights under houses, street lights….every single track went away from the water towards lights…or death. If the tourists had not found them and helped us we would have possibly never known the nest hatched due to rising water from Hermine.

The nest had been marked as a false crawl earlier in the season. That mama surprised us with her ability to conceal her nest among her tracks.

We were leaving that wild experience and got a call that Ken monitoring another nest had turtles emerging. The three of us ran down to B24 and helped oversee the babies journey to the sea. The tide was coming up high. Really high. We broke down part of trench after they boiled due to tide and waves.

SL21HThe next morning brought heartache. I arrived by 6.30am to help with B22 which was flooded. Two teammates and I found 61 perfectly healthy hatchlings with their egg sac completely absorbed (meaning they were ready to swim into the Gulf). Unfortunately they had drowned. We had permission to excavate the nest due to the impending flood and the sounds that had been heard for two to three days prior to the storm (meaning they had hatched and had not emerged from the nest). It was determined that we could wait until the next morning….but it was too late.

SL21DWe know that every turtle counts when a threatened species is involved so a loss like this hurts deeply. And we potentially lost eight nests due to flooding and erosion from the storm…the storm that wasn’t even close to us and produced maybe three drops of rain here. Only three of our remaining eleven nests remained dry and unaffected by the storm. That’s just in our 3 mile stretch of Laguna Key team’s beach.

It has been a record year for sea turtles across the southeast. At the beginning of the season, when we knew the female loggerheads were about to break Alabama’s record, I suspected we would have a storm. Somehow they know.. the mother turtles know. Of course that’s antidotal and biologists might scoff at the connection. But even in just the five season’s I’ve been a sea turtle volunteer I’ve noticed this trend.

SL30AThe day of the storm was exhausting…emotionally and physically. After four hours sleep from the previous night’s wild goings-on, the excavation of the drowned hatchlings and another team member and I surveying a section of beach for nest damage…and getting ‘lost’ due to the rising tide and waves…I was ready to rest. We all were.

Searching for hatchlings in a flooded nest.

So many people compliment the work we do. It’s work of our hearts. Not everyone on the team participates at the same level due to work commitments, time constraints or simply lower interest levels. But those of us who are there no matter what, who lose sleep and exhaust ourselves, who wade through nasty, foamy water to dig out dead hatchlings as the waves wash underneath….who get screamed at by local homeowners who can’t grasp the need to walk near their property to access the beach….we cry, we laugh, we save sea turtles, we lose sea turtles….those that stick with it and dedicate themselves to these precious sea friends…we do pretty work. Even though it’s not always pretty.



Go Gently

Go Gently

So great is the darkness the only way I can see the hatchlings is to rest on my hands and knees. The moist sand, illuminated with phosphorescence, mirrors bright stars overhead.

The waves are rolling long. Just as two baby loggerheads find water, a wave washes far, far on to the beach and envelopes me with warm, salty water. I freeze, watching carefully for the tiny beings, small dark spots on this dark night. They find their way to the sea and I relax and feel myself connected….with all life.

Working with sea turtles brings me back to rhythms of sea and shore, light and darkness. They challenge me to find balance within myself, with nature…the cosmos.

Go gently little ones….go gently.


Turtles, Stars, Sand and Sea

Turtles, Stars, Sand and Sea

_TSL6105In the dark of the night a faint glow emitted from the snow-white sand. From a celestial or mundane source? It was difficult to say from whence that light came. But that dim light allowed us to see the expanding dark spot in the center of the nest….Sea turtles arising from the depths of Mother Earth.

sunriseOn the sea turtle patrol walk Sunday morning I listened and heard a 15 cascade and crawling with the stethoscope. A cascade or waterfall is a sound produced when sand fills in the space where an occupied egg was. When hatchlings break free of eggs, the rubbery shell collapses and sand fills it as babies crawl up.

How do they know to crawl  up? It’s dark underground. Perhaps its the air flow…but that’s at least 12 inches above the eggs…maybe as deep as 24 inches. A mystery.

Team members who listened throughout the day heard sounds of hatching and crawling. When I arrived a little after 7 pm last night, my teammate Cathy said they were busy with the sounds we like to hear–cascades. Those cascades….those contractions of labor…indicate potential hatching.

At one point, I knelt down inside the tarp to listen with the scope and centered myself. As they worked beneath the sand, I envisioned a wave of love surrounding them, protecting them. I also sent a message with my thoughts….there’s a LOT of rain coming. If you’re ready to hatch this would be the perfect evening. It’s dark, the sand is fluffy and easy to crawl in and people are here to make sure you make it safely to the water….but it’s up to you sweet friends.

I listened again to the nest a little before 10pm and heard almost constant cascades after Cathy and I had heard shallow, loud cascades and deep, quieter cascades all evening. This indicated to me that the entire nest was working, not just a few turtles. When I heard non-stop, loud cascades I let other team members know our babies were about to make an appearance. A quick check with the red light showed a large V-shaped depression in the sand…another sign of eminent hatching.

turtleOver the next two hours one dark spot…a nose, perhaps breathing the first breath of unobstructed, fresh air…became two, three…four….too many to count. Finally, in the very dim light we saw a slowly-growing darkness. The visitors, excited by the possible hatching, probably began to doubt us. We would relay the visuals…”there’s a dark blob…sea turtles are coming”…thirty minutes later….”the dark spot is getting bigger…think it’s gonna be a boil”…..thirty minutes later….”I know you don’t believe us but it looks like they are waiting to come together, it’s gonna be a boil”….thirty minutes later. And so on.

Kids got tired. Some folks gave up and went back to their beach homes. Who in their right mind would sit on a beach waiting for something that may not happen? Those of us that volunteer know what that slow-growing dark spot is and what will happen…at some point…maybe hours later….but we know….we know.

On one of my checks I knelt to the side of the light-shielding tarp and listened with only my senses. Ever so softly I heard their chirping. I had heard this through the stethoscope before but never when they were on the surface. The chirping is their way of communicating with each other while in their eggs. As the gathering of hatchlings reached over a foot in diameter and their bodies could be seen layered on top of each other, they chirped softly to each other. What were they saying? Was it encouragement? A gathering of siblings. So sweet was that faint sound….so precious. Tears form as I write this hours later, reflecting on the miracle of sea turtles…of all life.

On my last check at the nest before they were born, I knelt once again outside the tarp and could hear the boiling sound of sea turtle hatchlings crawling over each other and erupting in one massive contraction to the star-lit air. Bioluminescence illuminated the waves as they rolled onto shore welcoming the babies. Stars peeked through the clouds. A soft wind wrapped around all those human souls who stayed to witness the birth of 105 sea turtle souls into the sea.

Could this mama imagine the babies that would emerge? Photograph of a sea turtle release after rehab. Photo taken with permission by USFW under conditions that do not harm sea turtles.
Could this mama imagine the babies that would emerge? Photograph of a sea turtle release after rehab. Photo taken with permission by USFW under conditions that do not harm sea turtles.

I minded the nest as Cathy, Nancy, Rick, Matt and Jim observed the beautiful transformation of little earthlings to sea beings that, with good fortune, will return in 20 years or so lay their own nests.

After the parade of active babies made their way to the Gulf, I listened once again to a cascade and scratching. Another baby was working to make its way up and out into the night, into a future made brighter by the work Share the Beach volunteers do to give our sea turtle friends a chance at survival.


Female sea turtle crawl
Female sea turtle crawl

Share the Beach was started because hatchlings were consistently crawling toward porch lights and street lights rather than the sea. We walk the beaches of Alabama May 1st to September 1st looking for female sea turtle tracks. The tracks lead us to nests which we mark and get a GPS coordinates and other data. Around 50 days later (it varies dependent on heat/moisture) hatchlings begin to hatch under the sand. We then erect black tarps to help with disorientation from artificial light sources. It takes three or four days for babies to crawl through sand and empty egg shells to the surface. We monitor nests with stethoscopes and look for visual changes in the surface often. At night, the usual time for loggerheads to hatch, we attend the nests for as long as they are active. Sometimes visitors to our beaches get to observe the amazing sea turtle boils. If you are staying at the beach please be mindful of a few things: Please turn off all porch lights and keep indoor lightning low; don’t use bright flashlights around nests that are tarped and never when hatchlings are present or about to hatch…this is disorienting to the turtles and draws predators to the hatching area; remain respectful of the hard work turtles are doing to be born and keep horseplay to a minimum and noise levels low. 

_TSL5639Special note from last night’s hatching….thank you Cathy, Nancy, Rick, Jim and Matt for such awesome teamwork! And to our visitors who helped us hold a space of respect and love for the hatchlings….THANK YOU! And….to those precious babies who lit up our night and our hearts….thank you for reminding us of the sacred cycles of life, the wisdom of our instincts and the ability to care and love beyond ourselves.