The Egg Men

Volunteers spend millions of hours trying to rescue sea turtles. So how come so few people care about busting poachers?

The sun hasn't come up over the ocean when Debbie Sobel begins her routine brisk walk up Singer Island recently. Sobel is founder of the island's Sea Turtle Conservation League. Every day, she or one of the dozen volunteers she oversees makes the two-and-a-half-mile trek to monitor the beach, where turtles lay eggs in 1000 nests a mile each season.

This is prime area for poachers. One-fifth of Florida's 71,000 nests last year were counted in Palm Beach County. The nests are also common to the north, but fewer poachers work there. Researchers found fewer than 2900 nests last year on the more populated beaches in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In the past, poachers have rarely struck outside Southeast Florida, but this year, they stole eggs from three nests in Naples and another in St. Petersburg; the latter was the first known poaching in the Tampa Bay area in 25 years.

Colby Katz
Alvin Keel was sentenced to five years, the longest federal prison term ever for a turtle egg poacher
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office
Alvin Keel was sentenced to five years, the longest federal prison term ever for a turtle egg poacher

The damage left by poachers is typically easy to spot, Sobel says. In the sand, the sloppy ones leave knee imprints, a circle from a bucket, or tracks from a sack heavy with eggs. Smart ones walk in the surf until they find the sea turtle tracks. Then they wipe down their trail with a towel.

"Sometimes I give them names," Sobel says with a bittersweet laugh. "I had Big Foot and his friend Little Foot one year. They were good, but they left footprints all over the place that let me identify them." When two poachers were arrested later that season, cops confirmed one had the enormous feet she spotted in the sand.

Sobel's group is one of 123 recruited by the state-run Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg to monitor sea turtle nests. For 23 years, these volunteers have scoured beaches from Panama City to Jacksonville to monitor turtle-nesting.

But for all the good intentions that fuel the massive effort, no one keeps an accurate record of how many nests are raided each year or how many eggs are lost in other ways to human predators. The beach patrols have never kept an accurate count of poached nests. In addition, no one analyzes the sparse numbers that do exist to determine whether there's a trend. Neither beach volunteers nor wildlife officers nor lawmakers know whether poaching has increased.

The lack of record-keeping makes it more difficult for advocates like the survivor league to lobby for efforts to stop poaching, says Dan Evans, the group's education coordinator. The state will need to start keeping statistics on the problem if it hopes to gauge the damage poaching causes, Evans says.

Sobel, who refers to herself as "The Turtle Lady," talks in a hushed voice about poached nests she has found as she trudges up a dune on Singer Island. She finds only a few nests a year on average, but some years, poachers become more blatant. This year, her volunteers have found three or four nests poached. Sobel was quick to point out that it's not easy to stop egg theft.

As the sun peaks over the horizon, 49-year-old Sobel discovers a ghost crab pulling a sea turtle into its hole. Sobel runs up the beach to a nest nearby and digs out hatchlings struggling to the surface, hoping to protect them from the crab. But the surf has washed over the nest a few times too many, lowering the temperature within, so only a few survive. Sobel pulls out 83 infertile eggs, along with 15 hatchlings that she points toward the water. Those odds are not abnormal for a species whose offspring have only a 1-in-10,000 chance at survival.

From there, the turtles will swim for three days until they reach the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and float with the tide. Years later, as they have for 150,000 millennia, females that survive will return, build nests, and lay eggs on the same stretch of beach they crawled down as hatchlings. After a short gestation, tiny sea turtles will once again fight off everything from armadillos to men with plans to make a few bucks.

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