In Florida, con­ser­va­tion­ists keep things go­ing swim­mingly for the lo­cal sea tur­tle pop­u­la­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS an­drea.sachs@wash­post.com

At 10:03 p.m., the walkie-talkie crack­led with an im­por­tant up­date.

“Two tur­tles are past the high­t­ide line,” a scout re­ported from Juno Beach.

The pre­sen­ters at Log­ger­head Marinelife Cen­ter copied that and then forged ahead with their talk on sea tur­tles. Kate Uf­ford and Sue Thompson had passed around tur­tle skulls and dis­played im­ages of flip­per prints. They were now mov­ing on to hatch­ling be­hav­ior.

“Just what ev­ery­body wants to know at 10:20 p.m., right?” joked Kate from the front of the class­room.

On a June evening, the ed­u­ca­tors had been dis­tract­ing — I mean, teach­ing — us about sea tur­tles for more than an hour. They cov­ered the di­ets, anatomy, habi­tats and mat­ing rit­u­als (no love, just pro­cre­ation) of log­ger­heads, leatherbacks and green tur­tles, the three main species that nest on Florida’s east coast. We lis­tened and asked ques­tions, but we were ul­ti­mately bid­ing our time un­til The Call.

“It’s like in the 1950s,” Kate said, “when you’re sit­ting in the hos­pi­tal wait­ing room.”

At 10:37, the walkie-talkie spoke again.

The fe­male tur­tle was lay­ing her eggs, the scout said. Come quickly!

Log­ger­head baby boom

Quiz time: What do Florida and Oman have in com­mon?

Sand, yes, but also log­ger­heads. Lots and lots of log­ger­heads.

The 100-mile stretch from Mel­bourne Beach to Palm Beach County is the sec­ond-dens­est log­ger­head nest­ing area in the world, af­ter the Mid­dle Eastern coun­try. How­ever, the largenog­gin tur­tles don’t have a lock on Florida. Leatherbacks and greens, both en­dan­gered species, also dig-and-drop on the state’s shores.

Last year, the tur­tles were busy. Ac­cord­ing to LMC re­searchers, 2,877 fe­males laid more than 1.2 mil­lion eggs on a 9.5-mile sec­tion of Juno, Jupiter and Tequesta beaches in Palm Beach County. Nearly 933,000 ba­bies hatched in a wig­gling swarm. Among the three species, log­ger­heads posted the high­est num­ber of nests, with 10,387; leatherbacks and greens fol­lowed far be­hind with 268 and 988, re­spec­tively. And although log­ger­heads are con­sid­ered lo­cally threat­ened and glob­ally en­dan­gered, they broke the 2012 record by 44 nests.

All eyes are now on Sea­son 2015, which started with the first log­ger­head nest sight­ing in midApril. The num­ber has mul­ti­plied to 8,006 nests, with less than three months re­main­ing. At this rate, the Lady Loggs could set another record per­for­mance.

The cen­ter in the sea­side town of Juno Beach leads guided tur­tle walks four nights a week in June and July. The out­ings are part of its out­reach and ed­u­ca­tional ef­forts, which in­clude a small ex­hibit hall with aquar­i­ums and en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­plays, kids’ pro­grams and a gift shop. (It’s feel-good re­tail, with all pro­ceeds ben­e­fit­ing the non­profit.) The fa­cil­ity’s pri­mary fo­cus, how­ever, is to res­cue ail­ing tur­tles, nur­ture them back to health and re­turn them to the wild. They treat, on av­er­age, 50 to 70 tur­tles an­nu­ally; last year, they re­leased 25 sea tur­tles and more than 500 hatch­lings.

“We don’t have tur­tles on dis­play. We are a hos­pi­tal,” said Charles A. Manire, a vet­eri­nar­ian and di­rec­tor of re­search and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. “We see sick and in­jured tur­tles, which tells us what’s hap­pen­ing out there in the wa­ter and what’s hap­pen­ing to the pop­u­la­tion.”

Log­ger­head Marinelife Cen­ter started in the 1980s as a pas­sion pro­ject led by a Juno Beach resi dent nick­named the Tur­tle Lady. Eleanor Fletcher was grow­ing in­creas­ingly con­cerned about the plight of the lo­cal wildlife, es­pe­cially the hatch­lings. She no­ticed that many of the wee ones were crawl­ing in­land in­stead of seaward, drawn to the ar­ti­fi­cial lights of civ­i­liza­tion. To raise aware­ness, she or­ga­nized classes about con­ser­va­tion in her house and later in a room above her hus­band’s real es­tate of­fice.

Over the years, her mis­sion and fo­cus ex­panded. To­day, Log­ger­head Marinelife Cen­ter, which opened in its cur­rent build­ing in 2007, is con­sid­ered one of the most pre­em­i­nent sea tur­tle hos­pi­tals in the United States. This year, Manire and his vet­eri­nary staff dis­cov­ered a rev­o­lu­tion­ary treat­ment for chronic de­bil­i­ta­tion syn­drome, a life-threat­en­ing ail­ment that af­fects a ma­jor­ity of the in­com­ing shelled pa­tients.

I vis­ited on a ju­bi­lant day. On June 9, Reef was fi­nally leav­ing LMC, re­turn­ing to the ocean af­ter two years of treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. (By com­par­i­son, the typ­i­cal stay is four to six months.)

“For me, it’s all sweet,” Manire said. “Ev­ery­thing we’ve done for this tur­tle was for this mo­ment.”

The log­ger­head had a thick med­i­cal file, in­clud­ing chronic de­bil­i­ta­tion syn­drome, se­vere pneu­mo­nia, lung le­sions and a crushed shell caused by a col­li­sion with a boat. Reef strug­gled to float, so an or­tho­pe­dic team broke and raised the crushed cara­pace, thereby free­ing the back flip­pers that had been im­mo­bi­lized by the in­jury. In the fi­nal months, the staff had built an ar­ti­fi­cial ledge in a tank. Reef’s in­stincts to shel­ter kicked in; a dis­charge was im­mi­nent.

The cen­ter usu­ally re­leases the rep­tiles from Juno Beach in a rock-star spec­ta­cle that at­tracts hun­dreds of cheer­ing sup­port­ers. But it wanted to give Reef a head start and de­cided to trans­port the tur­tle by boat to a spot sev­eral miles off­shore.

Be­fore load­ing Reef into an am­bu­lance, staff mem­bers fas­tened the log­ger­head to a gur­ney and pushed the stretcher around tanks and visi­tors to the in­door hos­pi­tal. The treat­ment space in­cludes a phar­macy, op­er­at­ing room and blood­work lab, and guests can watch the ac­tion through a large win­dow. They placed the tran­quil crit­ter on a scale and jot­ted down 158.8 pounds, a healthy weight gain since 2013. Reef stretched its neck and opened its jaw, a pow­er­ful vise able to crack the shells of conches and whelks with one chomp. “No bit­ing,” an as­sis­tant cooed. The cen­ter had just re­ceived an ul­tra­sound ma­chine, and the crew was ex­cited to use the equip­ment to re­veal a big se­cret about Reef.

“It’s a girl!” a staffer ex­claimed. (Tur­tles hide their gen­der well.)

A tech­ni­cian showed me the im­age on the screen and pointed out the un­de­vel­oped egg fol­li­cles, which was also a clue to her age. Reef is a mil­len­nial!

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a tag on her flip­per, she was one step closer to free­dom.

“She took off like a rocket,” Manire told me about an hour later.

The doc­tor didn’t have much time to dwell on Reef, how­ever. Lilo needed him. The green sea tur­tle had ar­rived the pre­vi­ous night limp and weak. Manire sus­pected a neurologic dis­or­der caused by a toxin. He was heart­ened when the tur­tle shim­mied a lit­tle in­side its box.

The hos­pi­tal has 15 “beds” that are usu­ally oc­cu­pied by tur­tles in var­i­ous states of re­cov­ery. The tanks fill an open-air court­yard with easy view­ing from the top or side win­dows. Each pa­tient comes with a short bio cov­er­ing the who, where, when and howin-the-world-did-this-hap­pen. For ex­am­ple, Audubon and Mayflower ar­rived from frosty Mas­sachusetts in Jan­uary. Their di­ag­no­sis: “cold-stunned.” Na­cho Li­bre was an in­spi­ra­tion among the Yan­kee con­tin­gent. On June 15, the Kemp’s ri­d­ley tur­tle pad­dled off in Florida’s Canaveral Na­tional Seashore Sanc­tu­ary.

Lad­die is one of the newer cases. Res­cuers had dis­cov­ered the log­ger­head stranded near a Cur­rie Park fish­ing pier on Juno Beach, with fish­ing line wrapped around three flip­pers. I am no tur­tle ther­a­pist, but Lad­die looked quite con­tent swimming laps around its pri­vate pool. (No need to feel sorry for the an­i­mal’s soli­tary con­fine­ment. Tur­tles are in­her­ent lon­ers.)

Check­ers is a re­peat guest, and a fa­vorite among staff, vol­un­teers and visi­tors. The green sea tur­tle first ar­rived in 2011 with buoy­ancy is­sues and re­turned last year with a frac­tured shell that was prob­a­bly caused by a wa­ter­craft. The pa­tient swam by the view­ing win­dow with a bal­letic stroke and then tried to climb the walls like Spi­der-Man. Per­haps Check­ers was try­ing to es­cape. (Not an im­pos­si­ble feat: The mo­ray eel in the ex­hibit hall jumped out of its tank and landed on the floor.) Or per­haps Check­ers was prac­tic­ing her crawl for when moth­er­hood called.

A mother’s la­bor

On the evening tur­tle out­ings, nest­ing sight­ings aren’t guar­an­teed. About half the time, moth­ers will per­form a “false crawl,” in which they drag them­selves up on the beach but then U-turn and re­turn to the wa­ter. To avoid spook­ing the tur­tle, scouts will wait un­til she has ex­ca­vated her nest cham­ber and started drop­ping her eggs. While per­form­ing this ac­tiv­ity, she falls into a trance that even the loud­est ooher-and-aa­her might not be able to break.

“It’s a pre­his­toric process,” said Jack Lighton, LMC’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive. “The whole ex­pe­ri­ence is very hum­bling.”

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing the go-ahead,

Kate and Sue rounded up our posse and led us across the street to the beach. Lounge-y red lights lined the road­way, a muted il­lu­mi­na­tion sys­tem in­stalled to pro­tect the tur­tles. Condo units over­look­ing the wa­ter were dark or dimly lit. We wore black clothes and left our cam­eras and flash­lights be­hind.

At the beach ac­cess point, a vol­un­teer warned us to not smudge the tur­tle tracks, which re­searchers would study later. I stepped over a print that re­sem­bled a sin­gle Fire­stone tire mark. Sev­eral yards up, a scout named Gay crouched by a 150-pound log­ger­head. A red light il­lu­mi­nated the tur­tle’s hindquar­ters.

Typ­i­cally, a mother will lay about 100 eggs and take 60 to 90 min­utes to com­plete the task. How­ever, tonight’s tur­tle was mov­ing faster than a base­ball pitch­ing ma­chine, un­leash­ing half the usual num­ber of eggs in about 30 min­utes. By the time we reached her, she had al­ready cov­ered up most of the hole.

I sat sev­eral inches from her back flip­pers, which she used like a pair of gar­den­ing trow­els. She scooped up the sand and pat­ted it down. Again and again and again. Then she started toss­ing sand around with all four ap­pendages, blan­ket­ing her shell and my hair in the process.

“When she is fling­ing sand,” Gay said, “she’s do­ing a good job.”

Some­one sug­gested that we name her. One guest threw out Ruby Tues­day, in honor of the night of the week. We set­tled on the more ob­vi­ous Sandy.

Af­ter con­ceal­ing the nest, Sandy inched for­ward and slowly cir­cled to the right. We stood back to give her room.

Gay told us that she might re­turn to the beach three to six more times this sea­son to lay more eggs. But for tonight, she was done. She heaved her body down the slight in­cline of the beach. At the wa­ter’s edge, she let the wave­lets draw her for­ward and away. “She’s a tired mama,” Gay said. The eggs were now on their own. It was them vs. ev­ery­thing: dogs, birds, rac­coons, ghost crabs, even sand­cas­tle-builders. Af­ter a few months of in­cu­ba­tion, the new­borns will pop out of their shells and scram for the sea­grass beds in the Gulf Stream.

About 1 out of 1,000 to 10,000 hatch­lings will reach adult­hood. If Sandy’s off­spring sur­vive the tough odds, they will re­turn to Juno Beach in 2045 and con­tinue a long log­ger­head tra­di­tion, nest­ing where they were born.

AN­DREA SACHS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Reef, an in­jured sea tur­tle, is brought in for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion to the Log­ger­head­Marinelife Cen­ter in Juno Beach in South Florida. Be­gun in the 1980s as a pas­sion pro­ject by a con­ser­va­tion ac­tivist, the LMC is now con­sid­ered one of the best sea tur­tle hos­pi­tals in the coun­try.

AL KAL­BACH

A tur­tle crawls on the beach to lay eggs at night. Typ­i­cally, a mother will lay about 100, a be­hav­ior that can be wit­nessed up close with guides through the LMC.

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