A long walk on the beach: My night with biologists during sea turtle nesting season
Few places in the U.S. contrast more with my Brooklyn home than St. George Island off the Florida panhandle coast. In Brooklyn, the night horizon is defined by floors of pinpointed lights stretching skyward and every human need is within walking distance. Except maybe the need for silence. On St. George, silence is in abundance, save for the gentle rising of waves to meet the shore, challenging my thoughts about what I actually need. I need rest. My calves are still sore a little over 48 hours after I finished my last walk along the coastline. Daily walks across New York did not wholly prepare my legs for the nightly six hour shifts in the island’s soft sand spent searching for sea turtles with the Marine Turtle Research Ecology and Conservation (MTREC) Group at Florida State University on St. George Island.
When I arrived at base camp around 6pm—a rented beach house full with 15+ rotating occupants—activities for the evening had kicked into gear. The family-style meal of burgers was finished and planning for the night centered on a door with taped listing of groups and assignments. Sections of the beach were broken out by letters—I would accompany Anthony, a master’s student and teaching assistant, and Sam, a program undergraduate.
“We only saw a few false crawls in your section last night—hopefully they’ll come up tonight.”
“Does everyone have enough PIT tags and a GPS?”
“Has anyone seen my keys? I just had them!”
Preparation resembled a spy mission of sorts, though this aimed for the long-term benefit of both the humans and turtles. Supplies to tag and biopsy were passed out to each group, along with a GPS and red lamps. Snacks and water were stashed away into backpacks along with jackets for when the beach winds shifted in the early morning and we all headed out to begin our six-hour stretch of laps across our designated spot of dark sand.
Walking by clouded starlight, we looked forward to the impending moonrise, hoping the sky would clear and spare the use of our red headlamps—light, even strong red light, can have a disorienting effect on turtles coming up to nest. Soon into our walk, Anthony pointed out a distinct swished pattern in the sand that worked its way up towards the dunes, ending in a dark mound. After verifying, the turtle track, the turtle was indeed finishing to dig an egg chamber to lay a clutch of eggs, Anthony waved us up to begin the process of working her up.
Up close, I was amazed by her mass and strong, steady movements; she easily outweighed me. Barnacles and tufts of algae were anchored to her shell, forming a mobile micro-ecosystem, complete with squirmy little ghost shrimp.
As she laid her eggs, she entered a trance beginning our window of opportunity. A tape was pulled taut over the curve of her shell in three different measurements, stirring blue bioluminescent microbes to my delight. Turtles are very selective and easily spooked, but once they dig a nest and begin to lay, they are mostly unaware of the outside world. It’s not a state to test—volunteers restrict lights to the red spectrum and use touch and voices only as necessary—but the naturally occurring window of time gives scientists a unique opportunity.
She finished laying and began tossing sand back into the pit to cover her eggs, pounding it firm with thumps of her shell in a quick rhythm. In between her movements, metal ID tags were clipped to the thick keratin-like edges of each front flipper. A PIT tag, not unlike the microchips we place in our dogs or cats, was injected into the meaty curve of her left front flipper. The last step of collecting a skin sample from one of her hind flippers became difficult as sand was tossed, but with quick skill and a face full of sand, Anthony was successful.
We walked with her back to the water’s edge, stopping periodically with her as she gathered more energy to haul her dense shell across the sand. After she slide back into the sea, we returned to the rest of our walk that was quickly wearing on my tender urbanite feet. For the most part, the cooling sand felt wonderful, only to be accented with a broken shell or a ghost crab scrambling over my foot. I stumbled over a few abandoned sand castles and nearly broke my ankle in one of the few holes, and over the hours, I started to feel a pull on my Achilles from the malleable track extending the range my feet moved in and later, I empathized with others walking with shortened steps as to not lift their feet. Ice packs and rollers helped to soothe sore muscles, extending them through another night.
Sea turtles are worth the consideration. As members of both sea and beach ecosystems, they “mow” the sea grass beds, which helps them stay healthy and grow, providing a habitat for fish—both those that feed humans and larger fish. On land, their nests that don’t survive provide nutrients to the dunes, feeding the plant life that is a habitat for many birds and animals, and a barrier to beach wall erosion.
The stars still clear over St. George shone long before the lights of our human-made cities veiled their presence, and they will continue after we are gone. Our time here is finite, but we make an impact much greater than our years during that time, whether we consciously do it or not. By understanding more of what affects the turtles, I question my role and how I impact others. Yes, it is about saving this species, but it’s also about saving ourselves in our daily lives. We can avoid pollution from unconsciously harmful living and perhaps improve our lives by reintroducing the wonder of nature.