Florida's beaches provide sea turtles with ideal conditions to hatch their babies.
Sea turtle hatchlings are the cutest newborn creatures ever. Their big, black, raisin-size eyes are hugely disproportionate to their tiny two-inch bodies, giving a more helpless appearance than they deserve. These feisty creatures literally erupt from a sandy volcano churning with some 480 powerful, flailing little flippers (imagine four per hatchling, 120 hatchlings to a nest). After watching an amazing video of a hatch, I want to see the real thing.
So, when Candi, a fellow turtle admirer, calls at 11 p.m. one Saturday night in September, I grab a quilt, insect repellent for the nightly "no-see-ums" and my teenage daughter, Sarah. "You'll love this!" I cajole my skeptical, pajama-clad child.
Candi has been watching a loggerhead nest on Naples' Park Shore Beach. It's now three days past its due date. Tonight there's a slight indentation in the sand, a clear sign that little hatchlings are stirring around under there.
"It's happening any minute now, so hurry!" she sings into the phone and clicks off. Soon we're trudging down the beach to Nest #114. Candi's daughter Cassie is there with two friends; so are Kim, the "turtle lady" from the Collier County Department of Natural Resources and another turtle specialist. Only Kim has witnessed a hatch.
"Once they break through, they're little speed demons," says Kim. "Don't even think about blinking."
Stretched out on our quilts several feet from the nest, Kim tells turtle stories; the others tell ghost stories in the dark. It's been a hot day, and warm sand is not a great sign, Kim says. Hatchlings prefer cool sand-- or better yet, rain.
Midnight comes, then 1 a.m. No action, except for Sarah's snoring. We plan to return the next night at 10 p.m. That is, if the nest doesn't hatch in the meantime. It doesn't, so we go.
Dark beach, round two. Someone brings pizzas. By midnight, we're all out of stories and pizza. It's a school night, so we pack it in once more.
The next afternoon, Kim calls. The day's clouds have cooled the sand, and there's a slight vibration coming from the nest, indicating hatchlings will explode through very soon. We scoop up the blanket (this time Sarah brings a pillow) and head out again.
Four watchers have dropped out; tonight it's just Candi, Kim, Sarah and me. The indentation is very deep now, and even Sarah's excited. Alas, we've barely settled in when the heavens open and come tumbling down. We all slosh home.
At seven the next morning, the phone rings. It's Kim.
"Thought you'd want to know," she says. "They hatched."
While it's true that witnessing a "hatch" is a combination of great perseverance and luck, the odds of witnessing a "nesting" on a guided walk along Florida's primary nesting beaches are extremely high. It's also far more dramatic, easier to see and doesn't require staying up all night.
All Florida beaches are potential nesting sites, but the greatest concentration of loggerhead nesting turtles lies on the east coast between the Canaveral National Seashore (Titusville) and Fort Lauderdale. Guided by a trained naturalist with a special infrared flashlight, it's possible to watch the entire two-hour nesting process at very close range. Regular flashlights and flash photography are forbidden since they disorient the turtles. Remember to remain quiet as well.
Only trained, permitted volunteers may handle sea turtles, though anyone can observe from a respectful distance. Unauthorized contact can result in a $500,000 fine and even jail time.
State regulations only allow turtle walks in June and July. To make reservations or for more information, visit www.myfwc.com or contact the organizations below:
• Marinelife Center of Juno Beach, 561-627-8280
• Fishing Museum, Melbourne, 772-388-2750
• Florida Power and Light Company, Jensen Beach, 800-334-5483
• Hobe Sound Nature Center, 772-546-2067
• Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota, 941-388-4331
• Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Vero Beach, 772-562-3909, ext.258
• John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach, 561-624-6952
• Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Boca Raton, 561-338-1473
• Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park, Dania, 954-923-2833
• Museum of Discovery and Science, Fort Lauderdale, 954-467-6637
• Canaveral National Seashore, 386-428-3384