A Good Egg

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.

Miller quickly determines that these tracks mark what is known as a false crawl. The loggerhead hauled herself up, didn't like something about the spot, and slid back into the water without laying. There is no mound of loose sand at the base of the horseshoe indicating a nest. Still, she measures the width of the track to estimate the size of the turtle. This creature was average size for a loggerhead, about 250 pounds. She once found tracks of a leatherback, the largest and least common species, that were six feet across. The beast was as large as her ATV, and probably weighed 2000 pounds.

Fifty yards farther, after passing four senior citizens doing yoga exercises in the sand, she comes across what looks like the real thing. Using her hands Miller methodically scoops out a series of holes six inches apart, going down about two feet and feeling for the looser sand that typically surrounds an egg chamber. The sand is concrete-hard and stony, and her fingertips are hurting. But Miller burrows for 15 minutes until she finally hits pay dirt. The eggs resemble chicken eggs, but the shells are softer, "like three-day-old Jell-O," she says. Padding a plastic bucket with a wet towel, she gently deposits 157 eggs in it and sprinkles sand from the nest over them. She'll later place that sand in the hole inside the caged hatchery where she reburies the eggs, so that the hatchlings connect that location with their mother's original nesting site.

Miller remounts with a full egg bucket strapped on behind her and buzzes toward the south end of the Hollywood beach, near Hallandale, where a wall of high-rises towers over the sand.

There's a problem. City beach cleaners have driven their mechanical rakers above the high-tide line and wiped out any tracks, in violation of state rules barring them from raking above that line and cleaning before the licensed surveyor has completed her work. The city workers hail Miller and point out several possible nests she missed, but she's annoyed. "I wouldn't have missed them if they hadn't starting cleaning the beach so early," she says.

Hollywood city officials seem confused about what their crews are supposed to be doing. Public works director Greg Turek says his crews are trained to distinguish nests from false crawls, and if the Nova surveyors haven't arrived yet, they'll mark the nests and rake over the false crawls. "If we had to wait for the [surveyors] to get out there, we'd never be able to clean the beach," he argues. Streets superintendent Jose Vazquez says, however, that the crews always wait for the Nova surveyors before raking and that, if they jumped the gun that day, it was "an exception to the rule." Still, he believes that it's OK to rake above the high-tide line.

Lou Fisher, natural resource specialist at the state Department of Planning and Environmental Protection, angrily says that it's a violation of state beach-cleaning permit rules for anyone other than state-authorized surveyors to identify nests. Overeager cleaning crews are sometimes a problem in all Broward's beachfront cities, Fisher says, but they usually come into compliance with the law after he notifies their supervisors. Indeed, after New Times recently made inquiries, the Hollywood crews stopped raking before the Nova surveyors arrived, Fisher and Miller say. But Vazquez admits that the beach cleaners have continued raking above the high-tide line.

Despite these occasional problems, Miller is often touched by people's concern for the turtles and amused by the questions they ask her. One of the most common queries: How do the turtles know to lay their eggs right in your bucket? "I smile," she says with a giggle, "but inside I'm roaring with laughter."

Hot and thirsty, Miller winds up her shift at 9 a.m. by digging two holes inside the hatchery at Sheridan Street and the beach and burying the eggs from the two nests she found. She plants stakes on which she's written the number of eggs, and the location and date of each nest. The budding marine biologist looks forward any day now to the emergence of her first hatchlings from the holes she has so painfully dug for them. "It will be satisfying," she says, "like, hey, I've meant something to this little world here."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:
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Harris Meyer