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The sun is still just a promise on the horizon, the perfect time to zip along Hollywood's eight-mile-long beach on an ATV scouting for sea turtle nests. Dawn Miller grips the handlebars and scans the sand by the beam of her headlight. Pre-Dawn would be a more apt name for the 24-year-old graduate student. She's out at 5:30 a.m. three days a week searching for nests as part of the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program at Nova Southeastern University. Instead of a nest, the first sign of life she spots this particular morning is the dim figure of a police officer beckoning from the edge of the sand. She pulls over.
"There was a big one out there this morning," says Officer Arnold Campbell, pointing to a nearby spot on the beach. "When we seen her she was just coming out of the water." He describes how about 100 people had gathered around the turtle, waiting for her to lay eggs. "We had to keep them from doing all kinds of shit," he says.
Miller assures him that the onlookers probably did no harm. "Once they start laying their eggs, they're fine," she explains.
Campbell nods knowingly. "I guess it's like, once-you-start-you-can't-stop-dumping-till-you're-done kind of thing," says the cheerful cop, trying to relate egg-laying to a more familiar experience.
Tolerance for human eccentricities seems to come naturally for Miller, a self-described tomboy from Moline, Illinois, who's studying marine biology and coastal management. Her job, lasting from March through September, is to locate nests of the three endangered turtle species found in South Florida, to dig up the eggs, and to rebury them in the three caged hatcheries along Broward's 26-mile shoreline. Every morning, Nova dispatches one person to comb the Hollywood beach and five more to scour the more heavily nested coasts of Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, and Pompano Beach.
The goal is to increase the number of baby loggerhead, leatherback, and green turtles that make it safely back into the water after hatching. When they mature in 20 to 35 years, the females will return thousands of miles to the same spot where they hatched and deposit their own eggs. Mid-June is peak season, and as many as two dozen nests can be found on the county's shores on some mornings. Although it sounds like an idyllic job, digging scores of two-foot holes by hand to excavate hundreds of eggs is hard, sweaty work even for the muscular Miller, who gets paid $10 an hour.
Like a cop she encounters a wide range of behaviors and perils on the job. There's the morning masturbator, who's so regular in his habit that, if she's approaching his usual spot at 6:45 a.m., she slows down to let him finish before she gets there. Another frequent sight is couples enjoying alfresco sex. A fat skinny-dipper makes a point of walking up to her in his birthday suit and casually conversing. She's never been assaulted, but one of her female colleagues had to run away from a potential assailant and quit soon afterward. Another member of her team came upon a nest shortly after the eggs had been poached. Poachers, who sell the eggs for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities, could be dangerous if caught in the act, because it's a federal crime. In addition to dangerous humans, mosquitoes swarm her and red ants sting her. Her back aches and the tender skin under her fingernails is constantly torn and bleeding from digging.
Miller's travails on Broward's beaches are necessary because, unlike in Palm Beach County, humans insist on flooding the shoreline with light. The illumination confuses the hatchlings, which normally rely on moonlight reflected off the ocean waves to guide them to the sea. Left on their own, the babies emerge from the nests 45 to 55 days after egg-laying and crawl toward the bright lights, says Bill Margolis, project manager for Nova's turtle program. They get trapped by man-made obstacles such as car tires or fall prey to foxes and feral cats. Pompano Beach is the only Broward city with light restrictions, but even there the rules aren't enforced.
So the county pays Nova -- $90,000 this year -- to relocate the eggs to the cages, collect the hatchlings, and deposit them in the surf. Even with this help, only one in a thousand survives predators and fishing nets and lives long enough to reproduce. While the number of nests in Broward through May of this year was 558 -- up 14 percent from last year -- experts say pollution and man-made habitat changes cloud the turtles' long-term prognosis for survival. "This job is worth a lot more than just money," Miller says. "Building all these things and having all these lights has kind of diminished the turtle world. This is the least we can do for them."
After thanking Officer Campbell for his tip, Miller scoots off and identifies the telltale signs of where a loggerhead -- by far the most common species in South Florida -- crawled onto the beach and back into the surf. It's a horseshoe-shape double track about 2 feet wide and 25 feet long, with a flattened channel in the middle made by the turtle's bottom shell, called the plastron. "Once you see a turtle track, you can never mistake it again," she says. Maybe she couldn't, but lots of other people might. The turtle tracks are obscured by seaweed, tire marks, human footprints, and craters of various origins.