Walking with turtles

Sunday, July 10, 2005

JUNO BEACH, Fla. -- The radio call comes in long past her bedtime but 7-year-old Nacia Goldberg lets out a squeal loud enough to convince her mother she is up for the adventure she was promised.

Nacia and her family have spent the last two hours at a turtle rehabilitation hospital waiting for that call, the one that says the giant turtle has crawled onto the sand to lay her eggs.

She grabs the hand of her cousin, 5-year-old Madison Wood, and hurriedly chases after a crowd, camouflaged in black and covered in bug spray. The group sets out on a steamy, quarter-mile trek to a moonlit beach, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive, prehistoric-looking creature.

Sea turtles are declining in numbers but the popularity is growing for guided, late-night turtle walks, where beachgoers can watch a 300-pound turtle dig a hole, drop 100 eggs and drag herself back to the ocean.

Tickets to the walks regularly sell out at environmental centers along the East Coast, despite little advertisement and only word-of-mouth for promotion. Conservation experts hope the tours will help the endangered species to thrive by educating the public about the perilous nature of turtle nesting season.

Only one sea turtle egg out of 10,000 will reach adulthood, compared with one out of three bottlenose dolphins. That's largely because the mother turtle never returns to her nest, leaving her three-inch-long hatchlings to wiggle their way out of their sandy pit, into the water and away from the many predators lurking nearby.

Some never make it out of the nest before they are snatched up by people who illegally sell the eggs.

Turtle walks started decades ago as wildlife officials and volunteers combed the beach to mark nests and tag turtles to keep track of their numbers. As interest in the endangered species grew, conservancies, such as the Marine Life Center here, invited others to join the summertime walks.

Marine curator Larry Wood says the odds of spotting a turtle are no better than having success during a night of fishing. But locals and tourists line up on sweltering summer nights for a spot on the tour.

Federal and state laws protecting the species allows beachgoers to watch only the threatened loggerhead turtle laying her eggs. The endangered leatherback turtle, which weighs up to 2,000 pounds and "looks like a Volkswagen coming out of the water," cannot be disturbed, said David Porter, a center volunteer.

Porter has a walkie-talkie hooked to his shorts so he can keep in contact with the dozen volunteers spread out over a mile on the beach. Armed with radios, night-vision scopes, and bug spray, the volunteers quietly scout the beach for signs of a turtle emerging from the water.

Within the first two hours, volunteers spot two loggerheads. But both crawled back to the ocean before digging a hole or laying their eggs.

The long night of waiting requires patience. The group starts off the night watching a short educational film about sea turtles; then spreads out among the center's wildlife displays and 10 tanks of recuperating turtles. One of the largest is Gonzo, a 98-pound loggerhead who was stranded about 40 miles away after colliding with a boat. Another is named Misda, short for misdemeanor -- the charge levied to the person who stole the turtle from the beach and tried to sell it in a pet shop.

About 10:40 p.m., the crowd hears commotion on the volunteers' radios. A third turtle was spotted and started digging her nest -- a sure sign she will stay put for as long as two hours. A crowd of about 30 kids, teenagers, parents and seniors start their way toward her.

Nearly an hour later, the turtle starts pushing the sand back over the eggs and packing it down. She makes a slow turn toward the ocean. A volunteer tells the kids to rub her shell and it will glow from the phosphorescent algae on the turtle's back.

But the seemingly lethargic turtle startles everyone with a swift push toward the ocean. Within seconds, she's back in the water.

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