Father’s Day 2010 and I’m on the Atlantic Ocean with my girls. They all like to sleep in; I don’t. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, but took my time and didn’t hit the beach until around 5:40. I will never forget all that I saw.

Sunrise was at 6:26, and the sky was just beginning to lighten as I started walking north toward Patrick Air Force Base. I saw little shapes scurrying away in the surf in front of me. Ghost crabs. I watched for them as I walked, then saw that a little ways out the dolphins were awake. They and the diving birds like cormorants and pelicans were crazy active. There were also little pops of something in the water, I couldn’t tell what. Every once in a while a little black – something – would pop the surface, then go back under. I wondered what it could be.

About two condos down from ours, I saw a turtle crawl. The tracks went up the beach and back down, stopping at a circular depression just below the line of dune grass. I was certain it had to be a fresh nest. I noticed that the tracks covered all the human footprints and so on from the night before, so they had to be fresh. I wondered if I should call someone, so they could stake off the nest. Now I feel a little silly for thinking that.

I kept walking. In the space of the four or five condos between myself and Patrick AFB I saw at least six turtle crawls.  In one of them, I scared a ghost crab. I was between it and the ocean, and it seemed confused by that. It found an old footprint and hid. I got down on all fours and stared at it. We watched each other for a few minutes, neither moving.

Then I spotted a four-wheeled ATV moving up and down the beach. I remembered from my time on the gulf side that this was what the turtle nest spotters rode, and I wondered if this might be this beach’s spotter.

I saw that they’d stopped near the original nest I found, so I walked that way again. As I got closer I saw that it was a man and a woman. The man was on his knees digging, and the woman was following the tracks. At first I was going to walk past, because I feared they might be poachers. I was actually tempted to call the police. But then the woman waved to me, and I noticed she had a clipboard. Poachers probably wouldn’t have clipboards, I was thinking, so I got closer.

It turns out they were students at UCF, monitoring and counting the nests. The man had taken the eggs out to count them, and as I approached he was putting them back in. I asked if I should have called about the other turtle crawls, and they said no. They patrol the beaches each morning to spot the new nests. I asked if they would stake them out to protect the nests, but the researchers said there are so many nests this time of year that they couldn’t possibly stake them all. They just record the location, mark it in sneaky ways (I won’t say how, in deference to the turtles), and then move on.

Wow. So I saw turtle eggs. Each one with a baby turtle inside, growing and changing. In 60 days or so, that baby would break out of the shell, pop from the sand, and scramble toward the sea. Incredible.

I asked about the little popping shapes in the surf; could those be turtles? They didn’t know, but knew the turtles were out there, mating, waiting for nightfall. Loggerhead females will lay up to four nests during mating season, and the males are out there, too, for obvious reasons.

The Sun was just coming up, but a thick cloud covered the horizon. That’s ok, still plenty of days left to see that amazing sunrise over the water. The clouds kept the Sun from blinding me, and I still saw dolphins, thick as flies, out in the surf. They were everywhere! Lots of times a dolphin would come up right beside a floating cormorant. There were pairs and even triplets of dolphins. Mothers and babies, I guessed. I wonder if dolphins have a Father’s Day?

Anyway, I went up to the condo to try to stir the girls, to let them know about all the wonders out here. No good. Too sleepy. I went back down and just stood in the surf. Little pops were still happening all around. And then it happened. A loggerhead sea turtle stuck its whole head out of the water, not 20 feet from me, and stared me down. I literally gasped, my jaw dropping open and my hands flying to my face.

It’s Sunday, and of course all over the country people are having their moments of Sunday morning religion. That was mine.

I saw a wild loggerhead sea turtle.

I stood and saw many, many more turtles (or maybe the same one many times, though there were at minimum two, since once two heads popped up at the same time). Those little pops? They were turtles! I’d been seeing them the whole time without knowing it. Sea turtles, wild and free and only a few feet from me. And that’s worth getting up for.

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