On the Beach at Midnight…

Do you know what you’re looking at in this photo?

It looks a little like tire tracks leading back toward the dunes, right? But these were actually made by an animal. (I know, I know, another post with photos of tracks in the sand!) And not a particularly small animal, either. Here’s my striped foot for scale. I think there are more photos of my feet on this blog than of my face.

If you guessed turtle, ding ding ding! You are correct. These are photos of sea turtle crawls, the distinctive tracks made by mother loggerhead sea turtles emerging from the ocean to lay their eggs.

Sometimes she decides she doesn’t like a particular spot and does what’s called a “false crawl,” returning to the waves still heavy with unlaid eggs, waiting to dig her nest somewhere else. Above you can see evidence of a U-turn. (The tide has come in and gone out again since the turtle was here, erasing the portion of the crawl closest to the water’s edge.)

Wednesday night, my second-to-last night on Jekyll Island, I had the immense privilege of watching one of these big mamas at work.

After hanging out a friend’s apartment for part of the evening, I came home to the 4-H center around eleven. I was sleepy, but I made myself head down the boardwalk for a nighttime walk on the beach, something I’d already done a couple times earlier in the week. Stumbling across a turtle seemed like a long shot, but since I’ve literally been living on a sea turtle nesting beach, I felt like I had to try… and Wednesday I got lucky.

At the end of our boardwalk I turned left, heading north toward the section of beach most popular with the turtles, and I’d gone well under a quarter of a mile when a crawl similar to the ones above brought me up short. Even in the dark, I knew what it was. Turning, I followed it up to the edge of the dunes, and there she was on the crest of the dune ridge.

I had neglected to bring a red flashlight with me (white light disturbs them, but red is okay if used sparingly) but I could still see the outline of the massive turtle, easily four feet long, as she scooted further back into the vegetation. I didn’t follow her, wanting to disturb neither her nor the rest of the fragile dune ecosystem, but I sat in the sand and watched the summer triangle rising in the eastern sky while I listed to her rustle around in the beach grass – periods of silence interspersed with with the sound of her crashing through the stiff plants. While I was sitting there two other people walked past along the dark beach, probably also there hoping to find sea turtles but not recognizing the obvious crawl for what it was.

Finally the official night patrol from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center showed up, two women about my age equipped with red lights and clipboards and measuring tapes and such. We chatted and they confirmed my suspicion that it wasn’t normal for a nesting turtle to go that far back behind the dunes, that she wouldn’t even be able to dig a nest back there through the roots of the vegetation. Somehow she had gotten confused and, they said, would probably false crawl. Sure enough, once she found her way back out to the sand she made a beeline for the ocean without nesting; it was easy to get anthropomorphic and imagine that she was so frustrated and disgusted by her fruitless bashing around in the grass that she was just saying “oh, heck with it, I’ll try again tomorrow.” Her progress back toward the water wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be – rather than slow and steady movement, she would first crawl so fast we had to half-jog to keep up with her, then lapse into motionlessness to gather her energy for the next burst of effort. Finally we watched her disappear into the waves.

So, I didn’t actually get to see the nesting process. And, obviously, I don’t have any photos, what with it being night time and camera flashes being a big no-no. Still, I feel immensely lucky that I got to see this animal up close on the beach at all. Before I moved down here to the coast of Georgia I remember jokingly saying something about going to live with the manatees and the sea turtles. I wasn’t serious, because I imagined my chances of actually seeing either was pretty small.

In about an hour I’m leaving for the airport having seen both.

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