Watch a slideshow of experts and volunteers on their morning patrol
By Ron Hayes
Bright and early Mother’s Day morning, Joan Lorne climbed aboard an ATV and tore down Gulf Stream beach on a rescue mission for countless mothers who will never know how many of their children’s lives she saved.
Turtles are mothers, too, after all.
Loggerheads and leatherbacks, greens and the occasional hawksbill — on moonlight nights between March and September, female sea turtles crawl from the ocean to bury their eggs on the beaches of Palm Beach County.
By sunrise, they’re gone, with only flipper tracks in the sand to recall their visit.
And then the dangers arrive. Beach walkers and picnickers, foxes and raccoons that forage for the eggs, human poachers who sell them as rumored aphrodisiacs.
Three mornings a week, Lorne patrols the beach, before the tides and human traffic wipe those flipper tracks from the sand, to mark the newly laid nests with Do Not Disturb signs, reminding beachgoers that stealing turtle eggs is a third-degree felony.
She is not alone. In Manalapan and Ocean Ridge, Lantana and Delray Beach, dozens of licensed permit-holders and volunteers mark and monitor the nests.
“To me, it’s the beauty of it all, and the fact that these turtles are still here,” she says. “It’s gorgeous out here early in the morning, and to see what’s come out of the ocean at night is just really cool.”
Lorne was brought to the cause by her daughter, Jackie, a marine biologist and one of 11 men and women in Palm Beach County who hold monitoring permits issued by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Where the Lornes leave off, John Fletemeyer takes over. A research professor in coastal studies at Florida International University, Fletemeyer has monitored Delray Beach’s turtle nests for 25 years.
“We get an average of 250 nests a year on the 2.5 miles of Delray Beach,” he said as the sun peeped over the horizon one recent morning. “Ninety-six percent of them are loggerheads, with just a handful of greens and leatherbacks.”
When Fletemeyer first began monitoring, he walked the beach. Now he, too, uses an ATV.
“In the past 25 years, I’ve seen a slight decline in the nesting population,” he said. “There seems to be a slight increase now, but 25 years is really too short a span to tell what’s actually going on.”
Phil Stone was a Lantana lifeguard when he started guarding sea turtle nests. Now he holds a permit for the stretch of sand between the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the Boynton Inlet.
“To get out early in the morning and ride an ATV on the beach — hey, the only people who get to do that are lifeguards, law enforcement and me,” he says.
Ripping down the sand not long ago, Stone stopped to scoop up a Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon, one of a surprising number that seem to wash ashore from coastal parties and cruise ships.
“The turtles mistake them for jelly fish and eat them,” he explained.
The Lornes report finding two dead turtles on their stretch of sand, a green and a hawksbill. Autopsied at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, both were found to have ingested plastic.
Threatened by foxes, raccoons, poachers and Mylar balloons, sea turtles face outrageous odds simply trying to survive.
After laying their eggs, the mothers return to the ocean, leaving the hatchlings to find their own way to the sea. Instinctively, they are drawn to the moonlight on the water, but the lights from nearby homes, passing cars and the “urban glow” of cities can disorient them.
“Sea turtles need a dark beach,” says Meghan Koperski, an environmental specialist with the FWC. “If you live on the coast, that doesn’t mean you have to black out every light on your property, but you do have to manage it so it isn’t visible on the beach. And it’s not only hatchlings who get disoriented. Nesting females can also become lost on the way to lay their eggs.”
The odds are not good. According to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center of Juno Beach, only about one in every 1,000 to one in every 10,000 hatchlings reaches adulthood.
But for volunteers like Phil Stone, that’s all the more reason to give them the best chance possible.
“There's a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that I’m helping one of Florida’s endangered species,” he says. “Most of the tourists who come here won’t see any turtles, but if you dive off Florida’s beaches, you’re going to see turtles. And that’s because we’ve helped protect them.”