Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ancient Mariners - The Sea Turtles of Melbourne at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

Some concerned residents fear some predator
has been disturbing nests.  Getting rousted
 during the day has caused some to die of
dehydration before reaching the surf.  I found
this lifeless loggerhead on an early
morning walk.
The "Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge" is a federally enforced refuge and is unique for it is the largest nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles in the world.  Another distinction involves the grandfathering of all the property owners prior to the 1991 enactment.  Hence, there are a select few places to rent on this protected, secluded beach. 

On any given night in the season, from a reverent position, once can watch for "crawls." Watching for shadows from the surf, before long one can see they are indeed turtles emerging from the sea.  A good night might reveal both loggerhead or green turtle varieties, or the more rare here in Brevard County, the leatherback.
Same dehydrated loggerhead hatchling, just
forty yards from the surf.  If you find a
"wash-up" or otherwise struggling
hatchling, do not attempt to save it by
placing it directly in the ocean.  It will need to
regain its strength before it can be
reintroduced.  Place the turtle in a container
of wet sand and take it to the
Brevard County Sea Turtle Preservation Society
 or Sea World of Orlando or the Brevard County Zoo.

Sometimes something will distract or force them away, turning into a "false crawls," the female will leave a wide arching track from the sea and back without laying any eggs.

Volunteers patrol the surf line with their red Honda ATV's equipped with low impact red lights (shorter wave length light rays) as to be least intrusive on the expecting turtles. They watch for the telltale turtle tracks leaving the surf.

Distant observers such as we were, we could tell one was discovered by the slowing, then turning off of the light and halting.  Each time the ATV paused and darkened, our scans produced the dark lumbering visitors from the deep sea who were heading for the high ground of the dune.

The dune has eroded since our last visit, no doubt an indictment of our rising seas.  Part of our patio atop the dune has fallen off, lost into a severe cut-bank.  The turtle nests are now as close as a mere fifteen foot walk, with an equidistant drop off, from our back patio door.

A view from our patio.  

In the face of fines for things like leaving exterior lights on at night and for nighttime beach activities, some unauthorized people comb the beaches at night. 
One of many nests at the elbow of the dune, partially
covered by the thick vegetation that covers it like
mountain laurel.  Note the set of fresh turtle tracks
leading into the nest.  Close examination of many nests
will yield the dried remains of the leathery turtle shells.

Once the female feels the spot is right, far enough away from the surf so that her eggs will safely incubate for fifty-four days, she begins to dig a substantial hole, one that will provide ample space and to be large enough to submerge her from a predator's view across the sand.  She will also flip sand across her back to further obscure herself.

She has reasons to be so furtive.  Including man, she faces an array of predators including raccoons and gulls. A day earlier, a neighbor of the beach house, my friend Pete, a retired government contractor from New Jersey, told me to be on the look-out for a big cat patrolling the dune at night.  The green-woody vegetation growing as high as twelve-feet is as dense as any laurel thicket here in PA. 

Then, at about 9:30 PM of our last night, we noticed a figure emerge and pounce upon the sand from the thicket.  As the image took shape, it became clear to be the form of a large, lanky cat, patrolling one nesting area to the next, directly below our perch.  The big cat was either attempting to feast on the high protein and fat of freshly laid eggs or the relatively easy targets of the new hatchlings despite their already hard, spiny shell.
This is the same hatchling as pictured above.
Note the hollowed area filled with sand where
the umbilical cord is attached in the shell.
Also worth noting is the relative size of the
head, hence the given name "loggerhead."

Later discussions revealed a bobcat was recently killed on Route A-1A and that many suspected another tall one living on the dune.  Consequently some people from the Brevard County Sea Turtle Preservation Society (click here for link) say something has been disturbing the nests to the point where hatchlings are emerging too early with umbilical cords still attached.  While others had been emerging too late into the early morning light, dehydrating in the sun before reaching the surf.
This is the nest below the beach house.  Note
the tracks leading in, the smooth area in the center
flanked by angled depressions resembling truck tire
tracks.  From flipper tip to flipper tip, the tracks are
about the width of an ATV and could easily be confused
as such.

Just as the bobcat went out of sight, we noticed a turtle emerge from the surf and then what eventually turned out to be quite a large assembly of people.  In the ensuing forty-five minutes until she reached the dune, two volunteers from the ATV scrambled to bring in a research crew from the University of Central Florida and a documentary film crew.

Already feeling fortunate to be overhead and within twenty-five yards of the nest, it was the near ample light of the half moon that gave the scene more acuity.  The new proximity allowed us to talk to some of the volunteers, all of us keeping a safe distance away.

Most though were gathered at the surf, waiting for the signal from the lone spotter crouching directly behind the turtle who was using the blind-spot of her massive shell as cover.

Once the spotter could see the initiation of the laying, he turned and flashed a red signal light to the others.  The crew, now swelled to about twelve people, began to gather around in close proximity to the green mother.  
No longer in the classroom at the
Universityof Central Florida, Professor Emeritus Llwellyn Ehrhart
 enjoys "retirement" leading research teams on
the beaches of Brevard County.  "Doc"
is a distinguished son of York County,
Pennsylvania.  He serves on the
Sea Turtle Conservancy's Scientific Advisory Committee.  

We were greeted by Professor Emeritus Llwellyn "Doc" Ehrhart, originally from York County PA.  We were entertained and informed by his quick-witted charm and the energy in his story telling as the green continued her mission.  The Professor and his students sat at the ready as she continued to flip sand out of her hole and onto her back.

Prof Ehrhart thrilled us with stories and facts and patiently answered all of our questions.  This discourse, within earshot of his students who seemingly had heard them all ad naseum, was not deterred by their sardonic interjections to his punchlines.  He continued his barrage of turtle details, with as much excited enthusiasm as if he were telling them for the first time, apparently encouraged by the fortuitous finding of a set of fresh ears more than willing to hear them.

"Greens are known to be skittish," the Professor explained, coming up on her too soon might cause her to turn around, returning to the sea.  They will usually make up to two attempts, but if they return after a second time, they will often jettison their eggs in the sea.  Turtles will lay approximately 130 eggs at a time up to six times per season.

But the story of the green turtle and Brevard County is a success story.  Ehrhart said, "I read where the biologist back at Hawk Mountain (Berks County, Pennsylvania) announced a record number of bald eagle sightings there last year, calling it 'the preeminent environmental success story in the country."

Prof Ehrhart acknowledges the eagle's reemergence as rather noteworthy, but he'd like everyone to know what the Archie Carr legislation has done for green turtle.  "From those 32 nests back in the 1980s, the green turtles' numbers have grown exponentially."
A tireless advocate, Dr. Archie Carr Jr. was a professor at
the University of Floirda and was instrumental in
the enactment of Brevard County beach to protected
status.  The U.S. Congress named it in his honor.

It is estimated that Brevard County hosts up to 15,000 loggerhead nests per season.  Green turtles as a species are a bit more rare and were practically extinct here in the 1980s when the low point of only 32 nests was recorded.  Last year the slightly more skittish green laid eggs in over 5,000 nests, setting an astounding new record unheard.

That is, until now.

To the amazed surprise of many, this year's green turtle nest count has surpassed the 8,000 mark and still counting. "But don't be dismayed if the green's numbers take a drop next year," Ehrhart warned, "as they are known to waver in two-year cycles."

According to Ehrhart, green turtles begin laying eggs in their 17th to 20th years, but some have been found to start as early as fifteen.  (And in one study at an even earlier age!)  Impressively, the prime age is from thirty to sixty, though some are thought to still be laying eggs as old as seventy.  "But," he cautioned, "there is no empirical science for knowing a turtle's exact age."

Another green turtle distinction is in how she positions herself during the laying.  Whereas a loggerhead (known to have quite large heads for their bodies) will raise up, giving ample viewing space between the tail and the sand, a green (known to have rather small heads for their bodies) submerge their tail-ends while laying.  The female will use her rear flippers to pack and bury the eggs as she goes.

As we waited for her to finish, the students lounged on their backs on the sand, checking messages on their phones, careful not to flood the scene in white light.  After about an hour and a half, a student passively making a mental check list of the things the good professor had left said and unsaid, suggested he tell the "ardor wanes" story.
Though retired from the classroom, Dr. Ehrhart has been a tireless
advocate of the sea turtle.  Seen here accepting his award for his
service to the preservation of sea turtles by refuge namesake's son,
Archie Carr III.  The award was presented in 2009 by the Caribbean
Conservation Corporation.

Apparently this was right about the time when Ehrhart would make his famous "ardor wanes" pronouncement, in reference to the flagging energy of the students.  To this he obliged by telling us of an old frog mating documentary.  It compared the number of chirps of the hopeful frogs at dusk as compared to the number several hours later, to which the narrator used the now infamous line.

A telltale shift in her body language signaled the end of her laying.  Then, as if launched by a signal from a starter's pistol, the students assembled in predetermined positions with the precision of a NASCAR pit-crew.

First a student checked her left front, then moved clockwise around the turtle, finding flipper tags on most, calling out the numbers as another student recorded them.  Next, measurements were taken with a tailor's tape.  

Including the curve of her shell, she measured 105 centimeters lengthwise.  The average turtle according to Ehrhart is 99 cm (about 39 inches).  Then another student unfolds a large set of portable calipers to measure straight width and length as well.  They estimated her weight to be between 300 and 350 pounds.  (Compared that to the leatherback at about 183 cm (6 feet) and about 900 pounds!).

The videographer was continuing to film a documentary called "The Call of the Ancient Mariners" (click here for a preview) using infrared lighting.  Interestingly, this project is associated with the website which has a similar mission. attempts to preserve elements of Americana on the whole.  Topics include Native American Connections to Turtles, as well as Appalachian, African-American, and Yiddish traditions in America.

As we approached our third hour, the green turtle began to pivot to the right, trying to raise herself from her hole.  However, due to being so close to the eroded dune, the more she dug to get out, the more sand collapsed on her from above, including an old driftwood log of a palm tree.

Concern even spread among the seasoned team of researchers.  Some suggested we try to heave the now quite exhausted sea reptile, not used to bearing the full weight of her 300-plus pound being on dry land.

Sitting in silence, Professor Ehrhart patiently monitored the situation with a discerning eye, neither refuting the suggestions or encouraging them.  After about fifteen anxious minutes though, the tension was broken.  Sighs passed over many lips as she finally made her way out, having exerted considerably more time and effort than is normally expended.
The smallest thing can have the mightiest of impacts.

Paper or plastic?

So besides plastic bags, predators and poachers, turtles must now face the destructive forces of global warming as the rising level of our seas further erode these already rare sanctuaries while beachfront property continues to be such a highly sought commodity.
Located several miles south of Melbourne's public
beaches and fortunately for the sea turtles,
this section of the refuge sparsely receives daytime
beach tourists. 

By now, most of the students had dissipated away into the night, either to other sites but most likely according to Prof Ehrhart, back to their beds, as it was a long night well past one o'clock.

Only the cameraman, and our now even smaller group remained with this ancient, awe-inspiring creature of myth and legend, as she began to make her way to the surf.  With deep breaths, pausing from time to time with seemingly lugubrious steps, she eventually welcomes the sea back around her.

As the water's buoyancy releases gravity's burden, she once again enters the wilds of her home to be among her own kind, taking with her the hearts of the dry-landers willing to be touched by her presence.
Where empty beach and the grandfathered property owners meet:  The dune crossing is jointly owned by the pictured
beach house property owner and several residents across Route A-1A.  This is the site of our
previous night's encounter with a mother green turtle.