Once in a lifetimeRead Now
If someone would have told me I would have the chance to possibly see the largest kind of sea turtle in the world, I would have replied with an eye roll accompanied with a lighthearted "yeah right".
For years I daydreamed about these reptilian relics after catching a glimpse of one a long time ago onboard a catamaran in the Dominican Republic. Leatherbacks can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. They travel as far north as Canada and Norway and as far South as New Zealand and South America, tracking up to 10 000 miles a year between nesting and feeding grounds. Many Leatherbacks face more challenges than ever before and hearing about their complete disappearance in some areas of the Pacific is beyond saddening. Their roots have been traced back to 100 Million years ago. We simply have an ethical responsibility to keep this species from vanishing completely.
Unfortunately, as in most sea turtles, the chances of survival is one in 1 Thousand and I recently heard the dawning number of 1 in 10 Thousand. The leatherback sea turtles main food source is jellyfish. Often times they mistake floating trash as food. Besides life threating plastic pollution, they also end up as bycatch, getting trapped in fishing lines and fish nets. Poaching is another challenge in their struggle for survival.
Being aware of these facts make the chances of seeing one alive seem even more unlikely... until I came across a post on social media by Sea Turtle Adventures, picturing a leatherback hatchling on one of South Florida's beaches. My first instinct was to keep scrolling as I honestly didn't think they would give me the time in the day to join them. My gut, however would not let me disregard the post until I sent a message to them asking if I could possibly participate. I got an immediate reply, opening up my little turtle nerd world for a chance to see a "real" leatherback hatchling making it's first contact with it's forever home: The Ocean. Anticipation started with the arrival of the first email stating a nest hatched, which meant Sea Turtle Adventures would have permission through FWC to excavate the nest after three days. This is a form of conservation effort to save left over hatchlings that are possibly too weak to make it out of the nest. There is also a log kept on the number and state of the eggs for research.
You know what happens when something rare like this comes your way, right? Previously scheduled events are already on the calendar on the same exact day, making it impossible to attend this once in a lifetime event. My plans included my husband and I spending the weekend with our dear friends in St. Pete Beach - the complete opposite coast of Delray Beach where the excavation would take place. I played the scenario of driving 4 hours and over 250 miles over and over in my head until I finally came to the conclusion it was nearly insane to drag my husband across the state for not even having the guarantee to see a hatchling. But then, I got another email the next day, stating another nest hatched and there will be another excavation the following morning. At this point I knew I would be there, there was no way I'd miss two chances. After telling my husband, he agreed it was an opportunity not to be missed. Our friends shared his opinion and after spending the day with them, we made our way to the East coast the following morning. Our excitement overwrote the tiring half mile hike in deep sand leading to the identified nest with a thirty pound backpack filled with camera gear. But what I could not ignore was the amount of trash all over the beach. I managed to pick up as much as I could while being in a hurry to track down the nest. Later on, the amazing staff of Sea Turtle adventures provided free reusable bags encouraging bystanders to pick up litter. At this point I am not sure what was more disappointing: The nest not revealing any left over hatchlings or people grabbing a bag but not taking the initiative to pick up trash. The disconnect of wanting to see sea turtle hatchlings but not picking up trash that can be fatal to them is of deepest concern. But it wasn't all bad. The fact that it was a 100% successful hatch is great news. It meant that all the leatherback hatchlings were most likely in very good health and made their way into the ocean on their own. None the less, my heart was slightly heavy. Heavier than I anticipated. "250 miles, 4 hours,...an empty nest.....what am I doing?" echoed in the back of my mind. Of course I told myself there was no guarantee, of course I tried not to have expectations but this is much easier said than done when you wait a "lifetime" for something like this. But, there's always hope. There had to be a reason why there would be another excavation, right?. I changed my mindset to focus on the past serendipities I've had with Mother Nature and kept my fingers crossed for the next morning. I awoke with mixed feelings the next morning, thinking over and over again what if there's none again...,but what if there is?
Jackie, the president of Sea Turtle Adventures (one of the nicest people I have ever come across) was eager for me to see a hatchling. At times, it even felt as if she was more excited for me to see one as I was myself. One of the trained staff members kneeled in the sand and started parting the sand at the marked location, slowly making her way down into the nest. I felt my heart racing again and the adrenalin fully kicked in when I heard Jackie yell "LINDAAAA". It got a little blurry after that....was it really a leatherback hatchling that was just lifted from the nest ? And then a second one, a third one,...Eight. The total of leatherback hatchlings was eight - a number that is rarely seen. Just yesterday I fought back tears of disappointment and here I was, laying in the sand with 8 little adorable baby turtles crawling passed me making their way into the sea, my eyes yet watering again. But this time out of pure joy. It was such a moving experience getting to see all of them imprinting onto the sand, setting their GPS. Leatherbacks have magnetic chemicals in their brain interacting with the earth's magnetic fields. This amazing fact leads researchers to believe is the reason why the female sea turtles find their way back to the same exact place where they hatched, 20 years later.
I find it beyond fascinating to witness this ritual that has taken place for over 100 million years. May it be their ritual for another 100 million years and may we do our best to keep them safe.
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Linda Wilinski is a certified Master Naturalist and Springs Ambassador who sees herself as the bridge between humans and nature, raising awareness through her pictures.