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Digging for turtles

By Staff | Aug 12, 2009

It’s shortly after 6 a.m. on a Friday, and Carol Strange pulls into the parking lot at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Wildlife Management office. Her vehicle’s headlights are the only things illuminating the vacant facility and, once she turns off the ignition, the only sounds you can hear are a few chirping birds and creaking frogs coming from the nearby preserve.

Strange opens the garage door as her grandson, Ryan Greenplate, and son-in-law, Gary, offer their morning greetings before the trio hops into a white SCCF Jeep. They are soon back on the road together, heading towards Tarpon Bay Road Beach. The first few streaks of daylight – muddled hues of purple and orange just above the horizon – break through the darkness as they arrive at their destination.

So begins another day for Strange as an SCCF Sea Turtle Research & Monitoring Program volunteer.

“Every week is so different… you can’t believe the changes,” said Strange, one of the program’s permittees. “I’ve been doing this for eight years, but sometimes I still feel like a rookie.”

Each day during sea turtle nesting season, which runs from May to October, more than 100 volunteers like Strange monitor approximately 18 miles of Gulf beaches – from the Sanibel Lighthouse to the tip of Captiva – just after sunrise. There are six individual walking zones where volunteers walk more than one mile of sandy shoreline. On other stretches, the patrol is done via SCCF Jeeps.

During their patrols, sea turtle nests are identified and marked for monitoring and protection. Later in the season, new hatches are evaluated and that data is recorded. The statewide collection of data helps promote programs that improve the chances for sea turtles to survive.

“How many digs do we have today?” Strange asks her grandson, who responds that they have four on their schedule.

“Good,” she adds. “Maybe we’ll see some babies.”

Nest #56

Making their way along a seven-mile drive along the coastline between Tarpon Bay Road and an area just south of Blind Pass, the group inspects the first eight sea turtle nests. Because each of the nests have been monitored closely by SCCF volunteers, they can pinpoint the expected hatch date with a tremendous degree of accuracy.

“I think this one is getting pretty close,” said Strange, upon inspecting Nest #176. “It might even hatch tomorrow.”

Another half mile up the beach, they arrive at Nest #56.

“This one’s our first dig,” noted Ryan as all three get out of the Jeep. Before Greenplate can remove the three-sectioned barrier – which surrounds each identified nest – Strange is already down on her knees, digging deep into the sand. Nesting sea turtles may bury their eggs up to two feet deep.

After scooping a few dozen handfuls of the course sand from the spot, Strange begins pulling eggs from the widening cavity. Gary and Ryan sort the broken shells into small piles of 10. Some are fully empty, indicating a successful hatch. Some are whole, indicating that they were unfertilized. Others show signs of unsuccessful births.

Here, they find a total of 33 eggs. And then…

“I think we’ve got a live one here!” said Gary, his voice rising with excitement.

Still stuck inside an egg, a tiny loggerhead hatchling begins to move its front flippers. His movement is slow at first, but after a quick “bath” in some fresh Gulf water, the two-inch grey sea turtle starts to wiggle with improved vigor.

“The back flippers aren’t out yet,” Strange notes as a group of onlookers gaze upon the newborn reptile with amazement. “I don’t know whether it’s a skeletal deformity, but I think he might be able to be released.”

They bring the hatchling a few feet from the rising tide, allowing him to crawl on his own towards the water. With only his front flippers propelling his motion, the little loggerhead moves in short spurts.

Soon, a wave finally carries the hatchling into the water, where several other marine creatures – stingray, tarpon and dolphin – are spotting swimming nearby.

Strange watches the sea turtle struggle to get his bearings. It appears that the youngster isn’t yet able to right itself in the surf, so the group decides to hold onto the hatchling until later in the day.

Nest #172

Their next stop of the day, a little more than a mile and a half further westbound, not only produces another successful dig. It also produces twice as much life found only inches below the beach.

“Oh my Lord!” Strange uttered, completely surprised by her discovery. After two quick handfuls of surface sand is pushed aside, the head and front flippers of a newborn turtle is exposed. A few more scoops reveals a second hatchling. “Both of these look real good.”

Gary comes over with a red bucket, which contains an inch of water and the first found sea turtle. The new pair are placed inside the bucket, which seems to trigger some excitement with the smaller one. All three begin to move their flippers rapidly, another indication that they are ready for release.

Unlike their “older cousin,” the two newbies march directly from the wet/dry sandline towards the water with an almost purposeful stride.

“Look at these guys go,” Gary laughs, following closely behind the pair as they entered the Gulf. “Wow! They really can move.”

In just a few moments, each sea turtle is enjoying the first swim of their lives, disappearing into the green water for destinations unknown.

Of course, if they are females, they’ll be back on Sanibel to lay their own eggs.

The first turtle, however, could not match the others’ progress. He would be released over the weekend.

Back at the nest, Carol and Ryan count a total of 49 hatchlings, 11 unfertilized eggs and four turtles dead in their shells. And despite the fact that Nest #168 (55 eggs) and Nest #174 (76 eggs) yielded no newborns to set free, Strange called last Friday “a very successful day.”

Dedicated to the cause

According to Strange, longtime SCCF volunteer Sheila Morley got her interested in joining the Sea Turtle Research & Monitoring program, which operates under a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Commission.

“In the beginning, I think I made a lot of bad calls on false crawls. Now I’m more discerning,” said Strange, who also wished to thank Judy Dockerty and Kristie Anders for assisting her over the years. “All of us are kinda gun-shy to call them.”

However, the regimen of monitoring sea turtle nests is not without its happy surprises, too.

“One time (Ryan and I) went to pick up some trash on the beach,” she explained, “and we found a nest. In fact, we discovered 94 empty eggs, which is a pretty impressive number.”

Keeping the beaches clear of debris and discarded clutter (beach chairs, umbrellas, bags, pails, toys, etc.) is also part of the volunteer corps daily duties. During Friday’s two and a half hour patrol, Strange stopped more than a dozen times to pick up garbage. Among the items collected were beer and soda cans, a pair of sneakers, a snorkel and a marine float.

Educating the public to clean up after themselves, she said, is very important to helping the species survive.

Part of the joy from Strange’s experience as a volunteer was being able to bring her grandson along on patrol.

“She first told me about what she does a couple of years ago,” said Ryan. “After she told me about what could happen on a trip, I wanted to get involved with it, too.”

Tagging along for the first time last week, Gary said that he truly enjoyed watching his son and mother-in-law participate in something which both fully enjoy.

“I just wanted to see what they are so dedicated to,” he added. “After today, I’ve kinda got an inkling why they like it so much. Watching those turtles get released was simply amazing.”

SCCF Sea Turtle Coordinator Amanda Bryant also explained that without such dedicated – and educated – volunteers, the program wouldn’t be as successful as it is today.

“Because no two turtle nests are alike, our volunteers have to look at each one individually,” said Bryant. “There may be tell-tale signs in the sand, or differences in the tides and the weather. They have to rely on what they have experienced during their work, step back in their minds and think to themselves, ‘What’s going on here?’ They really do a wonderful job.”