Turtle Freak

I am a turtle freak.

It’s not a label I readily accepted six years ago as I sat among researchers and conservationists in a Savannah conference center, scribbling notes on presentations delivered at the International Sea Turtle Symposium.

One of the speakers made an offhand comment about turtle “freaks” or groupies who attend the symposium with the primary goal of snapping up an array of turtle-themed items from around the world that were sold in the vendor marketplace. I was insulted.

True, I was not technically a sea turtle researcher, but I had spent all night on Florida beaches on turtle patrols, accompanying researchers as they tagged nesting loggerheads and leatherbacks. I had written about their work, read scientific papers on satellite telemetry, loggerhead hatchling mortality, and the migratory behavior of male hawksbills in the Caribbean. Archie Carr was one of my heroes.

Okay, I was one of few “researchers” in the audience who was wearing a loggerhead T-shirt and silver turtle charms that dangled from my earrings, bracelet, and necklace. And yes, my research notebook did have a leatherback turtle embossed on it. But my attire certainly did not mean that I was some sort of fanatic.

My choice in home decor . . . well, perhaps that tells a different story. I survey what I can see from my vantage point on the couch. There’s the loggerhead tea candle stand, the Buddha in the form of a turtle, a framed oil painting of Madagascan flat-tailed tortoises, a jeweled turtle something, a turtle crossing sign . . . and we haven’t left the living room yet.

I am resigned to the fact that when I pass from this life, the headline will read: “Woman Survived by 189 Turtle Figurines.”

What is it about me and turtles? Why does my heart lift whenever I see one of those (even I have to admit) unearthly looking creatures?

It all began at Emory with my exploration of the Lullwater Preserve. What started as a fun pastime—finding box turtles in the deep forest, catching glimpses of soft-shell turtles lurking at the bottle of the creek, and chuckling at painted turtles who managed to wedge themselves in the most unlikely positions in the lakeside brush—led me to wonder about their habits and habitats. Noting my budding interest in turtles, environmental studies undergraduate Mandy Schmitt Mahoney 99OX 01C 06L generously invited me to join her and researchers from other universities in monitoring nesting sea turtles along the Florida coast.

One summer evening I found myself at a Juno Beach hangout—the aptly named Thirsty Turtle—waiting for a call from the beach patrol. It was after midnight, cold and drizzling, when the radio call came: a leatherback was dropping eggs.

My fellow turtle watchers and I dashed along the shoreline to join a group of researchers who were preparing to attach a satellite transmitter to the world’s largest sea turtle. Easily a thousand pounds, six feet long, with a head the size of a soccer ball, she was oblivious to us—once turtles start laying eggs, they go into a sort of trance.

This ritual has gone on for millions of years, long before we cast shadows on these sands. If the hatchlings make it to the sea, they swim thousands of miles to feeding areas halfway around the world, returning thirty, even forty years later to nest near the same location from which they emerged.

We don’t know where they go in between— hence the transmitter that enables researchers to track the turtles’ movements, providing data that will help to protect their habitats and migratory routes. With the precision of a surgical unit, the team moved in quickly to strap a small box on top of the mother turtle’s shell.

Our leatherback filled the cavity with sand and then began to rock, rotating her massive body around and around, flinging sand in all directions to mask the nest from predators. She stopped abruptly and was still. The researchers gestured for me to kneel down beside her for a photo to document my “first turtle.”

Still oblivious to the ten humans bustling around her, the leatherback suddenly lifted her head, as if being called. Shuffling herself around to face the sea, she paused, then flung herself forward and down the dune onto the packed sand. Her speed was astonishing. She shoved herself into the surf and, flinging her head back for one more gulp of air, she was gone. I felt a vague sense of emptiness at her leaving. But I also felt a sense of kinship, a responsibility to a fellow creature who—against all odds—has survived for millions of years.

Several summers ago I took my “tween” niece and nephew to Singer Beach in Florida to patrol the beach and dig out nests that were past due for “eruption,” meaning that hatchlings may need help in digging out.

Working with an experienced volunteer, we dug carefully and were soon rewarded by the sight of a tiny flipper poking through the sand. I gently extracted a leatherback hatchling, a tiny, rubbery, pulsating being that thrashed his flippers frantically in an attempt to get away.

I put him down on the beach, facing the water. The hatchling strained mightily to hoist himself up and over several sand ripples to reach the flat, wet sand. Startled perhaps by the sudden change in temperature, he paused as a wave rolled in and swept him into the surf. He was gone.

Only one in ten thousand hatchlings survives. I’d like to think that the life that I held in the palm of my hand beat the odds. And perhaps one day my niece and nephew—or an Emory student—may have the honor and thrill of seeing “my” leatherback drop her eggs into a nest on a nearby beach.

I am proud to be a turtle freak.

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