Under hazy skies on a late May morning a pair of juvenile green sea turtles were released into the Atlantic at the Barrier Island Center in southern Melbourne Beach, Fla. "Chad" was found stunned and covered with barnacles at Indian Harbour Beach in January. "Mr. President" was discovered after what was thought to be a predator attack at the Barrier Island Sanctuary on President's Day. The two turtles were rehabilitated at the Brevard Zoo.
A pair of volunteers from the Sea Turtle Conservancy carry Mr. President and Chad-- their flippers flapping wildly-- in a plastic tray to the water's edge and lower them into ocean. The turtles float for a moment before diving under a blue-green wave and push their way to the sea. Floating and weightless again, they begin an uncertain decades-long journey. More than 150 folks cheered them onward.
Sea turtles are among the world’s most ancient vertebrates. They have lived on earth and navigated our seas for the last 150 million years. If you spy sea turtles on land, they look clumsy and awkward. Their powerful front flippers thrash about, hauling their huge bodies across the sand. Once in the ocean, it's a whole other story. They skim through the sea much as birds soar through the sky. Their flippers become wings, their disk-shaped bodies cut through the ocean like torpedoes.
It's been quite a comeback story for sea turtles on Florida's central east coast. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (ACNWR) is an epicenter. When marine scientists initially started counting the nests of green sea turtles here in the mid-1980s, they had plummeted to 40 nests the first three years.
Stretching for 21.5 miles from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach just north of Vero Beach, the ACNWR is recognized as the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the world as well as the leading area for green turtle nesting in North America.
Last year the loggerhead nests numbered more than 12,000, crushing a record the turtles set at the refuge in 2013 — 11,839 nests. This represents 25 to 35 percent of all loggerhead and green sea turtle nests in America. You will also find the leatherback turtle, one of the world’s largest and rarest sea turtles. At 700 to 1,300 pounds, they're nearly the size of a VW bug. They produce eggs the size of billiard balls and are known to travel as far as the coast of Portugal.
It's 9:30 on a starry, starry late June evening. My wife Jane and I are on a "turtle walk" behind the Barrier Island Center at ACNWR in southern Melbourne Beach. Heather Stapleton, our guide, is talking turtles. We peer out in the darkness at the Atlantic and suddenly a loggerhead turtle emerges spectacularly from the waves. It's turtle nesting time.
Looking every bit a pre-historic creature, the loggerhead is four feet long and weighs about 300 pounds. She methodically crawls ashore headed to above the high tide line. Using her front flippers, she digs out a "body pit." With her hind flippers, she makes an egg chamber. Depending on the species, a female deposits 60-120 glistening white eggs the size of ping-pong balls. When her task is done she rentlessly scatters sand to camouflage the nest. The entire process takes about 45 minutes.
"I feel blessed that the nesting happens here," Stapleton observes. "People travel from all over the world to come here to experience it and it's my job to lead these tours every week. Our guests tell me it's so rewarding. No one leaves disappointed. People light up. For many, it's a life changing experience."
Stapleton volunteered as a turtle scout a decade ago. Today, she is the turtle walk leader working three nights a week for Sea Turtle Conservancy during the height of the sea turtle nesting season in June and July. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is a research and conservation organization for the reptiles that are as old as dinosaurs.
The nesting season runs from early March until November 1 at ACNWR. Before sun-up a team of University of Central Florida students and researchers monitor the turtle nests from the previous night patrolling the shoreline on a ATV counting, marking and safeguarding the nests. Females don't begin reproducing until 20 to 25 years old. Loggerheads come ashore to nest a few weeks after mating and lay between one to seven nests per season. The eggs are soft-shelled, and are papery to leathery in texture, but do not break when they fall into the egg cavity the mother has dug.
Loggerheads were named for their massive heads, which support powerful jaws and enable them to feed on hard-shelled prey, such as whelks and conch. Like all sea turtles, they are air breathing reptiles even though they spend 90 percent of their life in the ocean. They are also a critical link in marine ecosystems taking care of the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs that benefit commercially valuable species such as shrimp, lobster and tuna.
After 55 to 60 days loggerhead hatchlings begin to break out of their eggs. Just a few inches long, the baby turtles emerge from their sandy nest in packs during the night after the sand has cooled down. Using the moon as a compass, the hatchlings scamper down the beach into the relative safety of the ocean surf. They run a gantlet trying to survive birds, raccoons, snakes, crabs and a long list of other predators ready to eat them. Sadly, the reality is the estimated rate of hatchlings that reach adulthood is only about one in a thousand.
The hatchlings make their way toward the ocean using navigational markers-- scanning the white crests of the waves and the natural light of the ocean horizon. If the hatchlings successfully reach the surf they begin a "swimming frenzy" to escape the shallow shore waters where the danger is extreme.
Scientists have tagged the early stages of their lives the “lost years” because they don't have solid evidence on their whereabouts for as long as ten years. Remarkably, studies have shown that female sea turtles will often return to the same beach where they were born when they're ready to lay their own eggs for decades to come. Some sea turtles will live to more than 100 years.
Florida has protected long stretches of quiet, undisturbed sandy beaches from development, preserving them for nesting. You will find little or no artificial light such as beachfront lighting, street lights, light from cars or campfires that is essential to the reproductive success and survival of the sea turtles.
The sea turtles use the ambient light of the ocean horizon to find their way into the water, so white light pollution along developed coastlines disorients them. Our guide Stapleton and a couple of turtle spotters carry a red light (a wavelength not easily recognized by the turtles) for nighttime observation. Like many Florida coastal towns, Melbourne Beach has passed strict sea turtle conservation laws and organized educational initiatives for residents and tourists, like the classic “Sea Turtles Dig the Dark” campaign.
This season as of June 25 there have been 10,856 loggerhead nests marked in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. With another month of prime nesting to go those numbers are well on their way to smashing last year's tally, in what should be the highest loggerhead nest count in a decade. Green turtle nests total 153, while leatherbacks-- who dig a nest that stretches nine feet wide-- have reached 71 which might top their previous high mark of 79 nests. Dr. Archie Carr, Jr. must be smiling.
In the world of sea turtle research and conservation, Dr. Carr stands alone. A biology professor at the University of Florida, he unraveled many mysteries about giant sea turtles. Dr. Carr wrote 11 award winning books and over 120 scientific articles about sea turtles and their habitats throughout Florida, the Caribbean, and Africa. He drew international attention to the plight of the sea turtle and the risk of extinction if actions were not taken to protect nesting beaches and other dangers at sea.
It's a safe bet that scores of the hatchlings that Dr. Carr monitored a half century ago still return to his namesake refuge to launch the latest generation of sea turtles.