Sunday, July 31, 2011

Turtlenecks and Knee-highs

I’m not fond of going to the beach. I was born a few miles from it. I grew up going to it. I was just never enamored with sand-encrusted crevices or sunburn streaks where mom missed with sunscreen. Occasionally I’m inexplicably drawn to it and when I find a far flung beach devoid of umbrellas, noodles and men wearing black, knee-high socks, sandals and Speedos, I find I can handle it. When that beach is littered with fossilized shark’s teeth and etched with sea turtle tracks, I look forward to going back as soon as I’ve left.

Don Pedro State Park is located on a barrier island in Charlotte County, Florida. It’s only accessible by boat – a quick kayak paddle from the mainland. The relatively undeveloped island is covered with sea oats, Sea Grapes and Sable Palms. It’s not hard to have the beach to yourself. During a recent trek I noticed what looked like tire tracks going into the dunes and another set coming out. As I got closer it became apparent it was a turtle track. Most likely a Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) crawled out of the ocean during the night, dug a funnel shaped nest, laid her eggs, covered it and returned to the sea.

Loggerheads come ashore from April to August every year to nest and can lay up to 135 eggs. After nearly three months of incubation, the hatchlings will dig out of the sand and head to the sea. When nests like these are discovered, they are protected from nest predators and beachgoers by placing a wire cage over it.

Sea turtles need beaches like Don Pedro. Undisturbed beaches are few and far between and essential for the sustainability of their populations. Many beach communities are flooded with unnatural light that disorients female turtles coming ashore at night to nest. Debris found on popular tourist beaches, like litter, beach chairs, nets and other obstacles make it difficult for the sea dwellers to navigate on land and can entrap hatchlings headed back to sea. It’s important to keep our beaches clean and protect the few remaining undisturbed beaches.

Loggerheads and other sea turtles spend a fraction of their lives on the coastline and usually only to nest. Like the turtles, I spend little time there as well but when I do, it rouses my curiosity. Where do these turtles go and how do they spend their lives? When they come ashore are they curious about life on land and what do they think of the men in their knee-high socks?

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