The turtle patrol goes out at dawn. Not a bad time to hit the white sand beach. I checked my alarm clock several times during the night. I didn’t want to oversleep and miss this opportunity. Not everyone can go on patrol, but I’m a volunteer on St George Island State Park and allowed.
The birds fly low over the water and the sand as our four-wheel drive gator crosses the beach. We need to stay close to the water’s edge so the tide wipes away the tracks, but at times the trash left by inconsiderate tourists has us crossing close to the dunes. Another duty for the volunteers is keeping the area clean.
The turtle expert is explaining to me what to look for, but I’m too excited to listen. She’s attended hours of class and been certified to hunt and mark turtle nests.
We’ll be checking over nine miles of beach for the turtles. The first tracks we find circle erratically, not normal unless the turtle is disturbed. Then we find someone’s sandle prints and paw-prints from a large dog. Someone took his dog for a walk after dark where he’s not allowed and it harassed the Loggerhead Turtle.
We still need to check for eggs. A nest can contain from one to one hundred and fifty
eggs. Maybe it didn’t lay, but if it did the nest needs to be covered with screen to thwart predators and posted with warnings.
We kneel in the sand and poke our hands into the sand. It is hard a couple inches down if it’s undisturbed. A soft place indicates the turtle dug down to deposit eggs. And there is a distinct odor from the turtle’s body fluids. After searching for an hour, we write-up a report that we didn’t find eggs, then the hunter notices a dead weed and swarming flies. Determined to be sure, she digs again. She finds the
nest underneath and carefully shows me the golf-ball sized eggs. I am thrilled.
We cover the nest and move on. Another track crosses to the dunes. An experienced ranger claims that nests in the dunes indicate a rough hurricane season ahead. The turtles instinctively shelter their eggs.
The second nest is covered and marked and we continue down the beach. Last year there were forty nine nests on this section of St George Island beach. This year we’ve found a Green Turtle nest along with the Loggerheads.
I spot a shell and stop to pick it up. A sunray is pretty and a keeper.
We don’t go shelling since it’s not allowed with a gator, but the trip itself has been an adventure.
I told my guide I’d love to do it again. Maybe after the fifty-five to seventy days it takes for the baby turtles to hatch.
Watching the tiny turtles head for the open water under the moon must be worth staying up all night.
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