Roy and the Giant Sea Turtle
Roy, sister Millie, Maggie and I had walked north along the Florida Atlantic beach for ten minutes just beyond the long reach of the streaming surf, when I thought I saw something up ahead. I spread my arms and stopped the family in its tracks. The full moon had turned the sand to silver and the ocean to a sparkling blanket of diamonds. The kids scanned the beach ahead and looked for the creature I had detected.
We were on a quest to see something that very few humans have ever had the good fortune to see. Roy was the first to spot it about twenty yards away, still in the bubbling wash of the pounding waves. It seemed nothing more than a large dark mound. Perhaps it was just a slab of worm rock broken away from its mother reef and washed ashore. There were many such slabs decomposing in the water and on the beach. They would soon crumble into the fine sand that now held them in its grasp. But as we watched, the black mound moved, and very slowly lunged forward toward dry sand.
It was a warm June night and our family, was vacationing in Paradise Beach, Florida. Roy was nine years old and Millie had just turned seven. They were excited because this was their first visit to Florida. Months prior to our occupation of the little beachside motel apartment, Roy and Millie had arduously studied about Florida’s wildlife. One of their main objectives was to witness, what I considered, the most ancient act of nature ever seen by human eyes. Each year, four species of sea turtles instinctively returned to the beaches where they were hatched, to dig nests and lay eggs as their ancient ancestors did for millions of years. Although they were still evolving, they had changed little in all that time. Constant mutation and gene variation had remained in perfect tune to a gradually changing environment. When the environment changed slowly, so did natural selection’s effect on animals. I explained to my family that evolution sometimes happens a little faster, such as during rapid climate change.
I had never seen this ancient ritual myself , I had just read descriptions of it. But now, my whole family would have a chance to witness it. For years, we had scrimped and saved for this unique adventure, for the opportunity to stand on a moonlit beach and watch a dark rounded shape emerge slowly from the sparkling ocean. I feared it would never happen, but still hoped we would get lucky., and sure enough, we did.
Millie and Maggie were thrilled and squealed in delight at the first turtle sighting. “Shhh! Quiet down.” I had to remind them to keep quiet so as not to interfere with the slow progress of the egg-laden reptile. The slightest noise or movement might be detected by the turtle and cause her to stop, turn and retreat back into the surf, perhaps to attempt to lay her eggs again later that night or the next night. It is believed, frustrated turtles will sometimes abort their eggs into the ocean. It was critical that we all remained still and quiet, and kept our distance.
The cautious reptile took five more minutes to reach the high water mark, just in front of the looming sea grape covered dunes. She stopped frequently to raise her head and assure herself that there were no nearby threats. We knew that raccoons were her biggest natural enemy on land. Raccoons scavenged the beach for evidence of nests, dug them up and devoured the eggs whenever they could. It was all part of nature’s plan and the turtles had adjusted to it. The great ocean turtles had been able to survive natural nest predation for millions of years without serious threat to their existence. One of the greatest natural dangers to turtles occurs immediately after hatching, when tiny baby turtles dig their way up from the bottoms of their 2 and 3 foot nests to the top just under a thin layer of sand. At an unknown signal they burst through the surface and race together from their nest to the relative safety of the ocean. Crabs and raccoons are waiting for them at night to take their share of the helpless babies. Even in their ocean element, less than one out of a hundred survive the other predators such as fish and sharks and crabs that wait for the helpless, little hatchlings. In spite of all these dangers, the great turtles managed to survive for many millions of years and populate most of the earth’s oceans and beaches. Each year millions of baby turtles are lost to fisherman nets. The babies become disoriented in the nets and drown.
We knew that now the turtle’s greatest enemy was not the natural one. It was human habitation along the shores, pollution of the oceans, and the simple fact that turtle meat is a good source of protein. We also knew that long-term turtle survival was questionable unless needy humans changed their ways. As long as there were hungry people, turtles would be harvested for meat.
We watched as the great dark shape slowly made its way between long creeping fingers of vines that streamed down from the low sand dunes toward the high water mark. At the base of the dunes she paused to rest and ready herself for the age-old effort of nest digging and egg laying that would leave her exhausted. During the course of the summer she might come ashore several times to dig a nest and lay her eggs.
We watched from a distance as she began her nest digging. I identified the turtle as a Loggerhead, the second largest species. At first, sweeping motions of her front flippers made a shallow depression in the sand. She paused a minute or two and then began digging a small hole with her rear flippers. The nest deepened as first one flipper and then the other reached down into the hole and scooped out the sand. Turtles live to an old age. Charles Darwin captured a young turtle and took it back to England on the Beagle. It eventually turned up at an Australian zoo still alive and well. News of its death was announced in 2010. It was estimated of being at least 135 years old.
As we watched the turtle in fascination, another group of beach walkers, looking for nesting turtles, approached them. Yelling kids ran ahead with flashlights while several adults followed. They would have run right up to the turtle had I not stopped them. I patiently explained to the kids and their parents about the rules of turtle watching. Interference with turtles was illegal and, as far as I was concerned, immoral. The strangers quieted down, turned off their lights and backed off to watch with our family.
When the turtle stopped digging, I let everyone quietly move a little closer behind the turtle so they could see the actual egglaying. I shone a tiny muffled ray from my flashlight into the nest hole so all could see the process. Millie counted as the turtle squeezed the eggs out of her cloaca and they plopped into the bottom of the nest. Millie’s final count was 103! As soon as the turtle finished laying her eggs she took a brief rest and then started to scrape the mounds of sand surrounding the nest back into the hole. She filled up the hole and scattered the rest of the sand so that it all but obliterated her nesting area. Millie and Roy were sprayed with sand from her great flippers. The other family left before the nest was filled in but we stayed and watched. Finally, the turtle was satisfied and without even inspecting her nest, she stopped shoveling sand and turned toward the bright, sparkling ocean. She was tired and laboriously struggled down the gentle slope of the beach and to the ocean. We escorted her to the water’s edge. When the first waves splashed over her sandy body she seemed invigorated and moved faster, anxious to reach the relative security of her natural environment. Millie and Roy waved goodbye and quietly wished the great reptile good luck. Millie cried out “See you next year Mrs. Turtle.”
We stood on the beach and faced out toward the vastness of the ocean. While we watched the turtle disappear into the crashing waves, no one said anything. Even Maggie was quiet for a change. It was a time for reflective thought about the event that we had been so privileged to witness. Roy looked up at me and noticed my tear filled eyes. Roy had seldom seen me react this way before, but he knew exactly what I was feeling because he was feeling the same emotions. Nothing much more was said as we slowly trudged back along the beach toward our little motel. Roy had to wipe his eyes and cheeks several times before we got there. It was an experience that we would never forget.
Two nights later Roy and Millie left Maggie and me back at the motel and went for a beach walk on their own. Little did they know that a great adventure was in store for them that warm summer night. Roy and Millie would soon have to make a life or death decision without the counsel of their parents.
The kids walked north on the beach for fifteen minutes and came across several turtle tracks emerging from the waves and heading up toward the sand dunes. Nearby, tracks returned to the ocean, evidence of successful egg laying. Millie suddenly grabbed her brother’s arm and whispered “ Look Roy! What kind of tracks are those?” The kids approached some very unusual imprints in the sand. They were similar to the other tracks that they had already passed, but these were much larger, more than twice as large! The tracks looked as if a large tractor had come out of the ocean and driven up to the sand dunes, and there were no tracks coming back!
Roy whispered to his sister, “Those tracks must be six feet wide.” He told Millie to be quiet as they carefully followed the tracks toward the dunes. Roy was the first to spot the huge dark shape in the shadow of a large sand dune.
“What is it Roy? That can’t be a turtle can it? It’s too large.” Roy hesitated before he answered his sister. He asked himself, “Could this be the giant of all sea turtles? Were he and Millie lucky enough to come across a rare leatherback turtle in the process of nesting?” Millie was excited when Roy told her what he thought it was. The kids kept well back from the huge black shape so they would not disturb the giant beast. As best as Roy could determine, the great turtle was as least seven feet long! Turtles that size might weigh in at close to a thousand pounds. Millie whispered into Roy’s ear, “It looks as big as a small car Roy.”
As they watched Roy whispered to Millie all he knew about leatherback turtles. Actually, not too much was known about them. He did know that they were endangered and they were the largest of all living turtles. He told his sister that leatherbacks are thought to dive to depths of over 3,400 feet, as deep as whales and elephant seals.
The Leatherback was in the process of digging her nest chamber when Roy sensed that something seemed to be wrong. He crept up behind the Leatherback to get a better look. As he watched the turtle digging her hole he realized that she had only one rear flipper. In addition, she was having great difficulty with a large flat slab of wormrock in the bottom of the shallow hole. Millie crept up next to Roy and watched the turtle struggle. “Can’t we help her?” Millie whispered. Roy thought for a while. He knew people should not interfere with nesting turtles, but this was an emergency. He also realized that they would not have time to get help. Millie pulled on his arm and whispered again “Roy, we have to help her. She can’t dig her nest with one flipper and that big rock is blocking the hole.” Roy made his decision without further delay and reached into the hole. With Millie’s help he pulled the rock slab out of the hole. While they struggled with the rock, the turtle stopped her digging efforts. The kids were afraid that she had given up and would not lay her eggs.
“Roy, what should we do? She stopped digging!” Roy didn’t know what else they could do…except for one thing. In the past he had demonstrated a strange ability to communicate with animals. Roy’s dad thought that animals somehow sensed that Roy was no threat to them, and often they reacted to him in a calm, accepting manner. Roy started talking softly to the turtle, “Please don’t stop your digging. We pulled the rock out of your nest so you can dig some more. We will help you dig if you’re tired. Please don’t give up. You must lay your eggs.”
Millie reached into the hole and pulled out a handful of sand. No sooner done the turtle’s one remaining flipper reached into the hole and scooped out another pile of sand. “Look Roy, she’s digging again!” Roy put his finger to his lips and warned Millie to keep her voice down. Roy and Millie took turns reaching into the deepening nest chamber, being careful not to touch the turtle’s flipper. Apparently she was not aware that she only had one flipper because she continued to try to dig with the stump of the missing flipper. All the while the kids helped, Roy talked to the turtle in his soothing voice.
Millie interrupted Roy because she wanted to know what happened to the turtle’s flipper. Roy whispered back. “I think that a shark might have bitten it off, or maybe a big fish did when she was small.” While they talked they continued to reach down into the hole to scoop out handfuls of sand.
She’s so big Roy! What does she eat?” Roy seemed to remember that Leatherbacks mostly ate jellyfish and that they had a lot of spikes in their mouths so they could hold the soft, slippery jellies. Millie made a sour face “Eghhh, sounds terrible.”
Finally, the digging stopped. Roy pointed to the turtle’s tail. “Look, here comes an egg!” A round white egg appeared from under her tail and then plopped into the bottom of the hole. As the kids silently watched, the eggs, in groups of two to four at a time, plopped into the nest chamber. Finally the great turtle finished laying eggs for the night and started to push sand back into the chamber. Millie and Roy helped fill up the hole and then they moved back to watch the turtle flatten and disguise her nesting area by flipping sand over it. After a brief rest the Leatherback slowly started her trip back to the ocean, while the kids followed behind. “She looks so tired Roy. It’s a good thing we were here to help dig her nest.” Roy nodded his head as they watched the huge black turtle slowly enter the water. Several large waves crashed over her body and then she was gone. She blended into the black water perfectly in spite of her size. The kids could hardly wait to tell Maggie and me. They ran all the way back and burst into the motel room. Millie did all the talking at first so I had to wait until she was finished before I had a chance to ask questions.
Later on, after everyone else had gone to bed, Roy and I sat outside on a couple of old lawn chairs. We discussed the exciting events of the night. I was particularly interested in Roy’s brief communication with the turtle. I had no idea if the sound of Roy’s soothing voice had anything to do with the turtle’s resumption of digging. On the other hand, I was confident that Roy and Millie had made the right decision to help the turtle dig her nest. Perhaps she would have been unable to lay her eggs that night without the help of the kids. Leatherback females come ashore up to ten times per summer to dig nests and lay eggs, but this large female because of her missing flipper, may not have been successful and this may have been her first successful nesting attempt in many years! Roy and I talked until midnight to the sound of pounding surf. Finally we retired for the night.
I intended to add this adventure to my journal of Roy’s unusual animal encounters. I finally drifted off to sleep and sometime in the night had a dream about my son talking to a great sea turtle, mounting its back and taking a ride in the dark and vast ocean.