A Good Egg

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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."

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Harris Meyer