I wake up just before six, despite the fact that my 5:45 alarm failed to go off. By 6:07 I’m on the beach.
I notice right away that my tide tables must be a little off. The tide is supposed to be rising, yet I see little tide pools left behind by a receding tide.
I take off my sandals and step into the cool tidepool water. I know this is the place to look for crabs and other critters left behind by the receding water, but I don’t spot anything. A black-headed laughing gull has the same idea, but has more skill than I. He probes the water with his barbed beak, hoping for breakfast.
I head south on the beach, walking under the pier. Barnacles coat its pilings. I remember a naturalist telling me that one of the rarest commodities in the ocean is a solid surface.
A flock of white ibis seems unperturbed by my presence. They probe the sand, looking for coquina clams and mole crabs. The mole crabs are thick on this beach; I’d noticed that the night before. Dig a little depression at the surf line and you’ll see dozens of tiny crabs, and a few larger ones, too.
Mole crabs are one of the great joys of the beach. Catch one in your palm and it’ll try to burrow backwards into the spaces between your fingers. They have no sharp parts, so it doesn’t hurt at all. I’ve never tried one, but they must be tasty, as these white ibis keep grabbing crabs even though I’m only a few feet away from them.
Further along, a great blue heron guards a tidepool. She’s not moving, no matter how close I get. There must be something good in there. The heron turns her face toward me, staring at me with both eyes at once.
I notice that she’s got a band on her leg – she must have some experience with humans. Finally, as I watch as motionless as I can be, she strides away from her pool, walking gracefully to the north, step by elegant step, watching me all the way. I walk away from the ocean and toward the roped-off shorebird nesting area.
This area is full of black skimmers. I had marveled at their stability the evening before. They fly just above the water line, their lower beaks dipping into the water to scoop up unwary fish. What an amazing feat of engineering, to fly so level with one beak breaking the water line.
The nesting skimmers seem agitated, and I think maybe I’m too close. Then I see the source of their agitation. A laughing gull has infiltrated the group, and the skimmers are busy chasing the interloper off.
I walk a little further along, knowing my quarry. From our balcony the evening before I’d spotted the orange tape and four wooden stakes of a sea turtle nest. I want to get close to this nest, to feel the energy of those baby turtles nestled inside their eggs, buried in sand..
When I arrive at the nest I’m surprised to see the date – June 13! This is a brand new nest, build just Wednesday morning. It is nest 53 of the season, the first nest found after my last report from June 12. Only a few days before, an ancient reptile had climbed from the sea on this very spot, made her way through sugary white sand, and built a nest with perhaps 100 tiny bits of life buried inside.
Further along was another nest. I walked toward it, but was waylaid by a ghost crab hole. Ghost crabs are the sign of a healthy beach, so I’m glad to see this hole. I wait, hoping for a glimpse of the engineer buried deep inside, but his patience is greater than mine, and I finally move on. Further along I see two other ghost crab holes, these with tiny footprints made by the crabs’ sharp legs.
The second turtle nest is two days’ older – built the morning of June 11. A thought goes through my head. The same turtle will often build 3 or more nests in a season. Maybe these two nests, quite near one another, were built by the same mother loggerhead. Maybe she’s working her way north. Maybe her next nest will be closer to my condo. What an amazing thing that would be.
It’s ten minutes to sunrise, and I have one more target this morning – a group of rocks and pilings from a pier that is no more. I never make it.
I walk back toward the ocean, tracing the path of the mother turtle. I turn south and walk toward the pilings, but something stops me short. Tracks! Yes? No. Yes! These are sea turtle tracks. I recognize them from all the pictures I’d seen, and from my previous adventures with sea turtles. But this is something new. Something different. I follow these tracks up the beach. This is an unmarked nest!
I feel my heart racing. I dash back to the previous nest, looking for instructions on the yellow sign there. No phone number. Fortunately my smartphone is in my pocket, and I quickly find the phone number I want. I press in the numbers.
The phone rings.
“This is Mike.”
“Hi, I’m walking the beach and I think I’ve found sea turtle tracks to an unmarked nest.”
“Where are you?”
“About 25 yards south of nest 45.”
“We’re on the north end of the beach. We’ll be there soon.”
And then I wait. Standing there, watching the Sun rise over the beach houses before me, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m at the fork in the turtle’s path, just beachward of the nest, at the place where her up-beach tracks stop and her down-beach path begins. Coming up the beach, she wandered a bit, looking for the right spot, her front flippers digging into the sand and pulling her along.
Her down-beach tracks are much more purposeful, a beeline back to her watery home. I wonder how long ago she passed, how long before she returns.
I wait. I feel responsible now, as if I alone stand between this nest and insensate evil. I’ll protect it against all comers, hooligans with a volleyball, raccoons looking for a snack, or a jogger daring to tread on my nest. I wait. And I wait. I feel a pain in my toe. A tiny red ant has taken a bite of me. Better me, I think, than my baby turtles over there. Even so, I squish the ant. I’m a vertebrate chauvinist at heart.
Finally at 8:01 am I see a four-wheeled buggy driving under the pier and heading my direction. They drive slowly, watching the sand. It’s Mike and a young woman, with a sign on the back of their vehicle that says, “Sea Turtle Patrol.”
I’d met Mike before, though I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. I ask him if I’d really found tracks. “Yes,” he answers. Is it a loggerhead? Yes again. He looks at the nest. Now I’m fearful. What if he tells me this is a false crawl, that the turtle had reached this spot but then changed her mind? What if there were no eggs at all? What if I were protecting an empty nest?
“Well, it looks a little odd, but I see the sand sprayed off to the side,” Mike said. “Usually there’s a mound of sand, but probably she just crawled over it and flattened it out. We’ll mark it and then come back later to see if we can find eggs.”
And I breathed a sigh of relief. Mike marked the nest with stakes. The young woman with him told me it would be nest number 63. My nest.
It was a good day.