While vacationing in a resort at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea on the Fourth of July, I learned that one of the turtle nests in front of our building was that of a leatherback.
Each of the world's seven species of sea turtles are classified as either threatened or endangered, but the leatherbacks are "critically endangered." Three species make nests in Broward — loggerheads ("threatened"), green sea turtles ("endangered"), and leatherbacks. Ninety percent are loggerheads, so a leatherback nest is rare. The good news is that their numbers are on the uptick this year, with 30 nests in Broward. However, since an adult can lay five nests in one season, potentially there are only six leatherbacks laying eggs on our shores.
Development has been a major threat to the world's turtles, as babies frequently get disoriented when they hatch and confuse manmade lights with the light of the moon. Following their instincts, they go toward the light — but in many cases unfortunately, towards traffic instead of the water. To combat this, the nests on Broward beaches are patrolled by a variety of agencies who share information and responsibilities, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Nova University, Audubon, and STOP, the Sea Turtle Oversight Protection.
STOP volunteers are the bad-ass vigilantes who roam the beach at during the midnight hours, and remain elusive, like a secret society, not wanting to give out too much information on what they do. Volunteers need to put in 40 hours of training under a zone supervisor, and witness a few hatchouts of baby turtles before they are permitted by the FWC and deemed competent to handle responsibility on their own. There are 16 zones spread across Broward County — a total of about 22 miles of shoreline. (Broward in total has 24 miles of beach.)
"Individuals that work with us have to go through pretty rigorous training and supervision and be listed on our wildlife permit," says Richard Whitecloud, the co-founder of STOP. For a nonpermitted individual to touch or interfere with the turtles is a violation of federal law.
STOP was formed after Richard's wife, Siouxzen Whitecloud, crossed A1A early one morning to teach a yoga class on the beach and encountered a group of run-over sea turtles. The couple had been scheduled to move across the country two days later with their young daughter, but scrapped their plans to begin advocating for the turtles. Richard, who has a background in environmental engineering, says he puts in 60 hours per week on his turtle work, and does environmental consulting part-time.
The STOP posse consists of diehard loyalists who are totally unpaid, with their only reward being unsung hours of solitude with nature and occasionally witnessing a sea turtle momma coming ashore, or a nest hatching. To date,125,000 sea turtles have been rescued in Broward County by STOP since its inception in 2007. Their mission is to rescue the one-in-three sea turtles who are disoriented by city lights.
I myself witnessed many turtle babies turn around this week due to light pollution, even after their flippers hit the wet sand. A light went on, and around they turned, trekking across the sand to what would have been a certain death, had it not been for a kind human intervening.
The Fourth of July is a dangerous time for many animals, but most notably the beach wildlife. Tourists at my resort had been holding a vigil for many nights by the leatherback nest, drinking and smoking (sadly, some were using the beach as an ashtray) under the moonlight, ready to guard and protect the babies. STOP volunteers are not so crazy about the uninvited, untrained spectators, but there’s not much they can do about it, other than educate them.
For weeks, the ocean has been throwing up carpets of Sargasso seaweed. During the day on the Fourth, my son and I went out and moved some of the hills of seaweed to clear a path from the nest to the water, in case the baby turtles hatched. It was apparent that other people had been doing the same thing throughout the week in anticipation. I had conflicting emotions about moving the seaweed. It felt like trying to help a butterfly out of its cocoon. “Just trying to be helpful” can be a curse. But we did it anyway, and later in the evening, I was glad we did.
After the fireworks of July 4th, I went out to visit the leatherback nest and see how it was doing. I was pleasantly surprised to see a volunteer known as Turtle John at the helm, and spent the next few hours listening to parts of his life story. Turtle John — a.k.a. John Harbit - has been homeless at some points, and his story of struggle and sadness kept me thinking “I’ve heard this before.” Using his sobriety in positive ways, Turtle John went through STOP certification and spends a few nights per week on the beach guarding and protecting the silent sea turtles. By the way, not once, but twice, Turtle John has made news headlines after he found thousands of dollars and made sure it got returned to the owner via the police. In these stories he is called the "good Samaritan." Never once has he received a monetary reward in return for his acts of good character. I looked to the open sky and said some prayers for him while listening to the long saga.
After midnight, and after about two hours of Turtle John’s stories, a black spot erupted on the mound, and it was our lucky day! We had the rare opportunity to see baby leatherback turtles welcomed to the earth. About 50 hatched. Following protocol, I had to scramble to the safe distance of 50 feet from the nest, as John began flattening the sand with a Cuban broom so volunteers could better count the turtle tracks that would be made.
Only permitted individuals are allowed to shine special LED lightsources on these endangered animals; anything else is considered harassment and punishable by law. Many folks wrongfully think merely switching their cellphone flashlight to an orange color is good enough, but it is not the proper lightwave and prohibited from being used near hatchlings. The leatherback turtles are very slow in making their way across the sand and into the water. I decided to stand in the shoreline and watch how many made it into the ocean. After I counted only 10, I grew concerned. So I went and looked in the seaweed clumps to the left & right of the path we had cleared and sure enough, babies were flipped on their backs in the entanglement, and struggling to survive.
A part of me felt this was nature's plan: “Well, that’s why turtles have so many eggs, because only a few survive”. But the interfering part of me said “Save those rare leatherbacks!” Thankfully, trained STOP volunteers were there to help. In the morning, the final count revealed that 15 had made it into the ocean without assistance, thanks to the superhighway we had dug out of the seaweed wall. Forty distracted or disoriented turtles had to be picked up and carried to the water in buckets by STOP volunteers.
After being counted and cleared, the turtles were released into the ocean. A few days later, more hatchlings came out and were disoriented by the bright lights of the condos. Some babies were distressed enough that they needed to be taken to Gumbo Limbo Rescue Center in Boca Raton. Richard WhiteCloud, leader of STOP, reports that as of July, the peak of season, approximately 3,700 sea turtles have made it into the water unassisted on Broward beaches, while 3,300 have been disoriented and needed help. The numbers are expected to rise by the thousands as the season continues.
Broward County and city officials continue to be lame about enforcing lighting laws. While I witnessed a baby turning toward artificial lights, a tourist said, “Where I just came from, that would be a $1,000 fine, no questions asked”.
Says Richard Whitecloud: "The law is pretty simple : all the lighting ordinances [in Broward cities] have the same language: there should be no light visible to the nesting beach - no direct light, no reflection." But he says "no municipality is 100 percent enforcing that ordinance." He says Deerfield, Hillsboro and Pompano are better, but none "punitively enforce the ordinance." Municipal code enforcement departments, he says, are supposed to "enforce all codes without bias" refer violators to a special magistrate. In most cases, he says, all codes are enforced, except for this one — a concession to the beachfront businesses like hotels and bars. He'd love to see more action from elected officials, though he is discouraged by the current state policies: "There's a war on nature in Florida."
He says tourists won't go away if the cities begin slapping fines on violators. Quite the opposite: "people come from all over the world to see sea turtles." In fact, he says, a recent guest who did a turtle walk with STOP came all the way from Seatlle — and lamented that the city had spent millions on a fireworks display — to hurt, rather than help, its environment.
Whitecloud would love to see an exchange of the tourism "business model, from consumption-minded to conservation-minded." A current challenge, he says, is for hotels to inform their guests to draw the drapes at night. He says STOP has tried working with hotels to increase guest education but "some have declined because it doesn't fit their corporate branding."
Although sea turtles nests were on the rise the past few years, Whitecloud says each year brings a new threat. This year has been hot and dry so turtles are "dying in the sand column as they try to emerge... the sand is dry and hot — not suitable for nesting."
I’m thrilled to have been “chosen by the Universe” to be a part of this act of nature to watch the leatherback births, but still confused over the moral dilemmas of interference. Looking to the skies and asking for a little supernatural intervention into Turtle John’s life, I also found that perhaps we were called on to help clear a pathway of life for some grateful turtle babies who otherwise would have been entangled in the crud that the world can bring.
If you feel moved to say Thank You to Turtle John and the other volunteers, I urge you to mail a five or ten dollar Publix gift card (or something similar) to STOP and say “Here, this is for the incredible volunteers! Have a snack on me!” Their address is: STOP, 3104 NE 9th St, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304.
You can also sign up to join a nighttime turtle walk for a donation of $25 per person for ages 6 and up. Visit www.seaturtleop.com. And urge your community to enact better precautions for our endangered beach wildlife.
Here is video of the leatherbacks hatching. (If you get a password prompt, enter "new times")