She crawls out of the ocean in the dark, stopping, starting, stopping and then crawling again up the sand, raising her head, sniffing the air, then plowing ahead toward the dunes.
Experienced turtle watchers try to remain still. Experienced turtles watchers avoid even whispering. If she notices, hears, smells something out of the ordinary, she will turn and lumber back into the Atlantic Ocean.
Sea turtles have been laying eggs on the world's beaches for at least 200 million years. They have been laying eggs on Florida beaches since the land emerged from the sea 25 million years ago. In the 21st century the turtles are still hanging on.
It must be so hard now. They drown by the thousands in shrimp trawls and at the end of commercial fishing long lines. Their nesting beaches are mostly developed. The seas in which they spend their lives are filled with sewage, plastic and now, in the Gulf of Mexico, oil gushing from the bottom a mile deep.
Yet here she comes. In the dark of a Florida night, she crawls out of the surf in Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Florida. In the sea, she is streamlined and powerful. Out of the water, on the beach, she is awkward and fights gravity.
She catches her breath. Drags herself with those flippers another foot. The persistence and the courage of a sea turtle is enough to make a modern Floridian weep with joy.
She is a loggerhead sea turtle. She is about 4 feet long and 200 pounds. She likely hatched from a meatball-sized egg here about two decades ago. She dug out of the sand, evaded predators on the way to the surf and avoided being eaten once in the water. She made it to the Gulf Stream, to a weed line, where she could hide and eat tiny crabs and shrimp until she got big enough to survive.
The Gulf Stream carried her north, then east, across the Atlantic toward Europe. She reached sexual maturity off Spain or Africa. Eventually she felt the urge to swim west. Somewhere along the way she mated. Somehow — possibly by following the stars or feeling the magnetic pull of the spinning Earth — she managed to find her natal beach after a 5,000-mile journey.
Ancient Americans believed our continent lay on the back of a giant turtle.
We're guests on Turtle Island.
• • •
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and its 20 miles of beach is the most significant sea turtle nesting place in North America. In a good summer, scientists count about 15,000 loggerhead nests as well as some green and leatherback turtle nests.
Named after the late University of Florida herpetologist Archie Carr, perhaps the best-known sea turtle biologist ever, the refuge is more suburban than wild. When the federal government started planning the refuge two decades ago, a good number of beachfront homes were already in place. Then developers began racing the federal government to the best of remaining coastline.
Developers and American taxpayers each won some beach, lost some beach. On one side of Highway A1A lie million-dollar mansions, golf courses and even a polo field. On the beach side, from May into October, there is sand and sea turtles.
During the day, walk on the beach about a mile. You'll see dozens of what appear to be the tracks of small bulldozers going from the surf to the dunes about 50 yards away. Those are last night's turtle tracks.
In the summer, it gets dark about 9 o'clock. That's when the mosquitoes and turtles come out. On a breezeless night, an experienced turtle watcher wears long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, socks, shoes and a hat. Bug repellent can't hurt.
It's a dark beach. At least the millionaires who managed to build homes obey, for the most part, Brevard and Indian River county lighting ordinances. They're supposed to extinguish backyard lamps and close the drapes at night. Even the enormous Publix Shopping Center down the way shields parking lot lights from the beach across the road.
Mother sea turtles prefer the dark. Sea turtle hatchlings absolutely require it. Hatchlings instinctively crawl for light. The lightest part of a natural beach is the white, foamy surf and the horizon. On a civilized beach, hatchlings may head for the street lamps beyond the dunes and above the highway. Every year, sea turtle hatchlings by the hundreds are crushed under steel-belted radials.
A breeze. No mosquitoes. Go down the stairs to the beach. What's that in the dark ahead? See it, the black blob in the surf?
• • •
She is somewhere in the dark next to the dune. Experienced turtle watchers are patient and give her time to dig her nest. Facing the dune, she uses her back flippers to hollow out a cylinder-shaped hole about 2 feet deep. Disturb her while she is digging and she may immediately return to the sea.
So wait. Wait some more. Eventually, fall to hands and knees. Crawl along her track all the way to the dune. If she is still digging, back off. If she has stopped digging, try and see what she is doing. If she is lying flat on the beach and barely moving, she is probably laying eggs.
If she is laying eggs it is safe to turn on a small flashlight — one with a thick red lens that casts no shadow and is less likely to disturb other turtles climbing out of the sea nearby. Once a turtle is committed to laying her eggs, she will tolerate the presence of witnesses.
Lie on your stomach right behind her. No, even closer. The top of your head should almost be touching the very rear of her shell. Shine the dim light into the cavity under her.
Plop. She squeezes three eggs from a vent known as the cloaca. She stops moving. Now she shifts her weight to rear flippers as if she is trying to stand. But the movement serves only to bring on another contraction. She expels another clutch of pingpong ball-sized eggs into the hole.
During the next half hour she deposits about 100 eggs. The sex of sea turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sand where eggs are laid. The eggs deepest in the cavity tend to become male. The shallow eggs tend to become females. Why? Nobody knows.
We do know that even under the best possible circumstances, everything is against the hatchlings. If one out of 100 survives, consider the nest a success.
In the northern gulf, certain sea turtle natal beaches are contaminated at the moment by sheets of oil. Scientists are in the process of digging up eggs, which will be transported to east-central Florida. Hatchlings will be released in the Atlantic. Hopefully, the oil will never touch them.
But perhaps we should return to the present, to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, where a loggerhead female sea turtle is finishing her business on a humid July night. She begins her next task, burying the eggs. With her flippers she tosses sand into the cavity. It goes on and on like this for a long time. Eventually she pivots slowly in place and tosses sand to and fro. She knows, of course, exactly what she is doing. After a few minutes it is almost impossible to remember the precise location of her nest. If a human witness is vexed, perhaps the raccoons, possums, armadillos and wild hogs that eat turtle eggs will also be confused.
Finished, she turns and lumbers downhill toward the surf. Walk behind her. Feel honored. Few Floridians ever get to see this.
As white foams covers her, as she vanishes into the Atlantic, look down the coast and behold the orange glow of civilization. Up the beach about an hour and a million miles away is the Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Perhaps one day we will send a manned flight to Mars.
Even if we fail, there are miracles to fathom here on Earth.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.