The sea turtle flips sand with a rhythmic one-two, one-two stroke, covering the clutch of eggs she has just laid. She completes the job with seemingly no nostalgia for the belle terra she is about to quit. She doesn't so much abandon her offspring as entrust them to the more powerful mother, Earth.
Four watching children and I click off our flashlight but can't tell if she sees us. She makes a 180-degree turn, then heaves past us, pausing at the shoreline. You wonder whether she is the athlete summoning concentration or the creature of pure instinct awaiting just the right curl of surf or whiteness of foam.
Then, she launches, and the sea swallows her like a whispered prayer.
Earlier in the day I had walked along this stretch of beach in Brevard County close to the grand Archie Carr refuge, headquarters for many of Florida's turtle-protecting scientists. Those scientists consider the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge the most important nesting beach in the Western hemisphere.
I saw sea turtle eggs, depressingly broken and scattered like plastic cups, condom wrappers and other sandy debris. I assumed that man, the litterbug, was also man, the egg-destroyer. Maybe not. Raccoons are a common predator, too.
But humans are a menace. Those who fret about endangered species face summer with misgiving. Even as I caught my breath at the loggerhead's magnificent exit, some little worrywart voice was questioning whether her hatchlings would be lured off track by artificial lights. Disoriented, would they tumble, stagger and lurch toward the raccoons, away from the sea?
Though they've been around for 200 million years, sea turtles are going extinct in our time. All six species of sea turtles in the United States are endangered or threatened. Their eggs are sought after. So are their meat, shell, oil and leather. Collisions with boats cause injury and death. So does tangling with shrimp trawls and fishery lines. Beachfront development disrupts nesting sites.
What's more, all those bottles, balloons, plastic bags and Styrofoam cups aren't just eyesores. Loggerhead turtles eat them and die.
My fear for the hatchlings will last only as long as the summer nesting season. Politicians are to be dreaded all year long. Consider these setbacks in the political arena in just the last 30 days:
"New game panel won't fully protect marine species," the St. Petersburg Times reports. It seems the Legislature's new Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boasts authority over every kind of wildlife in Florida -- except endangered marine animals. So now all the environmental groups are banding together to sue. (Aside to Jeb Bush: Republicans don't have to be lousy for the environment. The last one to hold your job, Bob Martinez, strengthened rather than gutted environmental regulation.)
Given myriad threats, what does Congress do? On June 15, it watered down a law designed to protect fragile ecosystems from development, the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resource System. The change will allow fragile beaches, dunes, wetlands and barrier islands to be developed. Bye-bye, sea-turtle habitat.
"Not only is this detrimental to sea turtles and the other species that depend upon coastal ecosystems, but it will cost taxpayers money," says the Caribbean Conservation Corporation's (CCC) Sea Turtle Survival League. "Every developed acre of coastline costs taxpayers $82,000 in federal subsidies" -- namely, flood insurance and other handouts. The bill covers more than a quarter-million acres of Florida coast, host to 90 percent of sea-turtle nesting sites in the continental United States. No law at all would be better, according to the league.
Meanwhile, in Volusia County, "Money trumps good science and conservation," Palm Beach attorney Lesley Blackner said after watching developers win a battle over lighting-code standards. There, the County Council voted unanimously to push ahead plans for the $200 million Ocean Walk redevelopment by relaxing the county's standards along a stretch of tourist-hungry Daytona Beach. Such bright but artificial beacons can harm turtles miles away by deterring mothers from nesting or disorienting hatchlings in their search for the sea.
Education and action can help to counter defeats that are coming as steady as the tortoise and as fast as the hare.
Immediately, almost $3 million sought to expand the federal Carr refuge by the Clinton administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been cut from budget bills in the House and Senate. "This area is under intense development pressure and critical beachfront properties are being lost," reports the CCC. Its website lists elected officials to contact, and urges phone calls, faxes and letters; to contact CCC, call 800-678-7853.
Turtle Trax, found on the web at www.turtles.org, touts the wonder and beauty of the marine turtle. The site explains why all species of marine turtles are either threatened or endangered, and highlights a gruesome threat to the green sea turtle, the fibropapilloma tumor.
The National Marine Fisheries Service also hosts a website. Here, the Office of Protected Resources lists anything you'd want to know, turtle by turtle. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects all six species of sea turtles in the United States. Unfortunately, the bios read like obituaries. For example:
"The loggerhead turtle is a large reddish-brown sea turtle with a large head. They are frequently observed around wrecks, underwater structures and reefs, where they forage on a variety of mollusks and crustaceans. The most significant threats to loggerheads are coastal development, commercial fisheries, pollution and collisions with ships. Capture and drowning in commercial shrimp trawls has played a significant role in the population declines [of] this species."
The news is just as pessimistic for the green turtle, whose decline has been due to commercial harvest for eggs and meat, as well as leather and jewelry; the hawksbill, which is the source of "tortoise shell" and other products including leather and oil for perfume and cosmetics; and leatherback, Kemp's ridley and olive ridley turtles, done in by those and related threats.
To better understand them, there are also now opportunities to adopt a turtle, as I did last year, via the CCC Survival League's turtle-tracking website.
A year ago, two scientists -- L.M. "Doc" Ehrhart of the University of Central Florida and Barbara Schroeder of the state Department of Environmental Protection -- glued a satellite transmitter to the shell of a specimen they named Snapper. Then they launched her into the Atlantic waters off the Carr refuge. Each day I logged onto my computer and watched her exhibit great taste in destinations, bypassing Miami in favor of Key West and the Ten Thousand Islands.
Snapper's surfside odyssey did more than just please those who web-surfed in her wake. More than 5,000 registered educators helped school kids learn about these long-suffering animals. Tracking also helps scientists learn more about how turtles find their nesting sites and migration paths, long a mystery. Soon researchers will let Gulf Coast sea turtles in on the act, attaching satellite transmitters to turtles on that side of the state.
By the time the late Dr. Archie Carr, for whom the Brevard County refuge is named, discovered a 1947 black-and-white film capturing the arrival of some 40,000 nesting turtles on Rancho Nuevo on Mexico's Gulf Coast, their numbers already were dwindling. Kemp's ridley turtles were dying by the tens of thousands in shrimp nets. Today 500 nesting females remain.
The plight of the other species is hardly better. Imagine having to deal with raccoons on land, sharks in water and -- in both places -- predatory man.