Turtle Nest Expedition

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key is a tiny island in Dry Tortugas, across from Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is. A tall lighthouse, three times the height of a regular one, was erected here in the 19th century, about the same time as Fort Jefferson was being built.

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

 

There are not organized tours here, and so the island, its white sandy beaches, and the coral reefs around it are undisturbed by people most of the time. The only way to come here is by boat.

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

 

July 22, Monday

We drop anchor very carefully on a sandy bottom patch, making sure there are no coral heads beneath. Ivo and I take the kayak to check out the lighthouse and explore the place. Viktor and Maya stay on the boat to play video games…

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

 

On the island we stumble upon Mark and Suzy, Marine Biology Students doing an internship and a group of scientists studying the sea turtles.

Suzy

Suzy

Kristen Hart, a research ecologist, and her crew have just arrived to monitor some of the turtle nests on the beach.

They accept our offer to help with the turtle nest expedition. (Our help consists in caring a huge beach umbrella and holding it above the excavating researchers, taking pictures, and asking too many questions.)

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

 

In the next couple of hours, under the hot tropical sun, Kristen and her crew excavate turtle nests marked by a pole indicating a recent hatching.

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

They count the eggshells, mark the nest GPS positions, take samples from the unhatched eggs by opening them and collecting the smelly rotten yolks in a jar.

An unhatched baby turtle

An unhatched baby turtle

 

The nests contain exactly one hundred yellowish eggshells each, of which a few unhatched eggs in various stages of development, and couple of baby turtle body parts, meaning that most of the baby turtles successfully hatched and made it to the ocean sometime in the past couple of days.

We are so grateful to be part of this expedition… It is an amazing learning experience; we only regret that the kids didn’t come. We learn about the green turtles and the loggerhead turtles, their habitat, behavior, and reproduction first hand.

We spend the evening and a night of a full moon on the boat watching the light of the lonely lighthouse lazily circling around us. Tonight, enormous creatures will emerge slowly from the warm dark waters of the ocean hauling their heavy shells across the sands to find a familiar spot. A place where many many years ago they awoke buried among their one hundred brothers and sisters and with much effort their journey begun. At this spot, they will remember, their old mother came, many many years ago, and gently covered with sand one hundred round eggs, her most treasured possession. They will remember, yes, and they will do as she did. Tonight.

Full moon over the lighthouse

Full moon over the lighthouse

 

The next morning we go back to the island, this time with Maya and Viktor, to investigate the sands of the beach for new nests. Another short expedition.

Suzy leads us along the beach

Suzy leads us along the beach

 

Suzy leads us along the southeast beach showing us fresh turtle tracks and nests, explaining the difference between the green turtle and the loggerhead nesting behavior. I am glad the kids are interested and participate. This is an example of how they learn valuable lessons outside school, thanks to traveling. A natural history, ecology, and biology lesson they will never forget.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

 

They learn that green turtles and loggerheads have different patterns of walking on the sand and making their nests. That they dig sometimes a few nests before choosing where to lay their eggs. That they do this in the dark of the night to avoid being discovered and bothered by birds and predators. That they lay a hundred eggs or more, of which over 90% hatch successfully, but only a small fraction of the baby turtles make it to adulthood. The rest become easy prey for marine predators. That, if they make it, they can live to be hundreds of years old. That people hunt them in the past for they were an easy pray and had delicious meat until their numbers diminished dramatically. That today hunting and killing a sea turtle is a crime. That pollution, oil spills, and destruction of their habitat continues even now to endanger them. And that there are now programs and individuals out there who care about them and try to preserve them.

 

You can read more about the sea turtles of Dry Tortugas and the research and conservation efforts of scientists like Kristen Hart in Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report 2012.

 

 

 

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