September 1, 2014
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Confessions of a Turtle

Caretta, a hard shell sea turtle, tells all about her life on sand and in the water from her hatching to mating to travels and more.

A female loggerhead turtle.

A female loggerhead turtle.

Karen T. Bartlett

What follows is the fictional composite of several real-life Florida-born loggerhead turtles and the author’s imagination, based on research into the lives and habitats of Caretta caretta, the largest hard shell sea turtle in the world. It is dedicated to a female hatched in 2008 and released by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida on April 5, 2012.

I’m flying. my long, graceful flippers are my wings, propelling me at 5 miles per hour through the beautiful subtropical waters in the Gulf Stream. I steer with my short and powerful rudder-like back flippers. It’s said that prehistoric humans learned their paddling skills by watching my ancestors.

My name is Caretta. Well, officially, it’s Caretta caretta, but I like the sassy short version. I’m a very beautiful loggerhead turtle, if I do say so myself. At 22, I’m a beautiful young adult. I have a stunning golden-brown shell (carapace) in a kind of mosaic pattern. I have huge eyes and a very attractive overbite showing off my sharp beak. I love to travel. So far I’ve traveled thousands of miles from my Sanibel Island home beach. Another thing I love is the taste of jellyfish. Which is why I hate plastic bags. In the water, they look like jellyfish, and once I nearly died choking on one. I love shellfish, too. Laugh at the name “loggerhead” if you wish, but my large jaws are so powerful I can crush a clamshell like you crush potato chips.

I weigh 200 pounds and am 35 inches long not counting my head and tail. I may someday reach 400 pounds. Pretty impressive, since I was just 2 inches long at birth.

My Birthday

I remember everything about my life. This is good because, of course, I never met my mother or my father. I remember waking up inside my shell, very hungry. While I was feasting on my yolk, I felt a loud rumbling. My siblings in our dark egg cavity were waking up, too. We each started cutting our way out of our rubbery shells with our one super-sharp egg tooth. Not long after, the teeth fell off. Because, obviously, we would never need them again.

The hatching is like a volcano … a hundred or more new turtles erupting and flowing like lava onto the sand. They say it’s really something to see. I never got to do that. I was at the very bottom of my nest. I remember trying so hard to climb over my siblings, getting tangled in empty shells, sand in my eyes and flippers in my face. Then I was upside-down. Which is why I was still there with the other stragglers when the humans came to gather us for research.

Research Ambassador

It turned out to be a lucky break. I didn’t have to run from giant ghost crabs that drag hatchlings from their holes, seagulls at water’s edge or raccoons waiting in the dunes to eat me up.

The researchers wanted to study how many of us turned out to be male or female, which you can’t tell for several years. That’s how I ended up spending my babyhood swimming around in a fake ocean, observing humans through a big glass wall. That’s also how I know so much about the human world.

I was an official Research Ambassador in the Discovery Center at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, representing all of my species. Sometimes they weighed and measured me. When I reached 30 pounds, I was ready to survive in the wild. But first, they clipped a metal tag onto my front flipper and imbedded a transponder under my skin. For the rest of my life, satellites will track this device to see where I swim, feed and nest. How would humans feel if their private lives were being watched and recorded through their devices?

The most exciting day of my life was the morning I slipped from the research boat into the gloriously vast sea at Gullivan Key, a short swim from my birth beach. That morning, with my long, beautiful flippers, I began to really fly.

Mating: A Pretty Boring Experience

You might want to skip this part. It’s about S-E-X. Well, mating, anyway. Male loggerheads are definitely the least romantic creatures in the sea, and I would just as soon skip the whole thing. But it’s necessary to fertilize my eggs. If you’re curious, here’s how it works: When the female is in the receptive stage (biologically, anyway), she sends out turtle pheromones. Males start gathering around, acting stupid and fighting each other. It can get pretty violent. The winner kind of drapes himself over the top of her carapace. The long, sharp front flipper claws and the spur on the tip of his tail help him keep a grip, if you know what I mean. As I said, it’s not particularly fun. See these ugly scars on my otherwise perfectly beautiful shoulders?

If I’m not ready, I have the power to stand up to him, so to speak. I face him, floating vertically, and fold my lower flippers across my personal place. Pretty clear message, right? Thankfully, we mate only every two to four years. After fertilization, there are some strictly “guys keep out”
places where females can lie around in the sand and rest up for a month or so before our big job to come.

Confession

Now I’ll confess the mess I made of my first nesting attempt. We wait for dark to go ashore because heat can make us sick. The air that night was misty-cool, with a silver half-moon. I rode in on a wave, resting on the beach for a minute, and then crawled slowly toward the dune.

My body knew what to do. Using swimming-like strokes with my front flippers, I tossed up sand to dig myself a body pit. As I was making a circle with my back flippers, I saw the evil eyes of a land creature, lurking, waiting to take my eggs. I panicked. Crawling as fast as I could to another spot, I began digging again. But for some reason the sand felt wrong. I should have retreated to the water, but I was determined to get my first nesting right. The third time, I actually finished the pit, but I was so, so tired. Before I could finish excavating the deep, cone-like chamber, I could feel the eggs coming. With my last burst of strength, I gave up and headed back into the Gulf. Sadly, four eggs dropped out on the way. I was so stressed I dumped the rest in the surf. Those, of course, would never hatch. But I had three more chances that season. Those times, I got it right.

Trance

Once the eggs start coming, I can barely move, like I’m in a trance. They slip out two or three at a time, 30 or 40 times. Some humans see big tears in our eyes and think we’re crying in pain, but that’s not true. Those are just natural secretions, even in water.

In a good year, I will make four nests, leaving more than 400 eggs. I’ll have thousands of babies in my lifetime and I’ll never know who they are, or whether the eggs grew into boys or girls. Their genders are decided by the temperature of the sand during incubation. Cool equals males; hot equals females.

Anyway, a deep nest stays cooler, and a shallow nest is heated by the sun. We need more females to keep our species going, but shallow nests are easier for ants and other predators to get into. Sadly, only one in a thousand babies survives its first few weeks.

My Mother

I thought I saw my mother once. I just had a feeling. While male loggerheads never return to land after hatching, females always return to nest on the beach where they were born. How? Magnetic fields? Offshore current systems? Rotation of the earth?Sounds? Smells? Nobody’s sure, but when it’s time, we may swim a thousand miles, and we find our way.

In my third nesting season, I was floating near my birth beach, waiting for night. Another turtle swam nearby and we looked at each other. She was older, with a terrible gouge in her right front flipper, like a shark got her. But she was beautiful. When she began her crawl, so did I. We made our nests side by side in the same dune where I was born. When I finished, she was already gone. It pleases me to believe she was my mother.

Worst Day of My Life

Maybe you’ve seen those giant hoses that vacuum up sand to restore beaches. But did you know they also suck up fish, dolphins and ourprecious sargassum grass feeding grounds? Once I saw two loggerheads and a baby dolphin get vacuumed into a machine that chopped them to pieces.

Journey

Humans guess that hatchlings follow the light of the moon on the water, but sometimes there’s no moon. They do know that light of
any kind attracts and confuses hatchlings. Following the wrong kind of light, they get stuck, lost, eaten or die of exhaustion.

Three days after the hatching, research humans dig into the cavity to rescue hatchlings that got stuck in hardened sand, caught in roots or were too weak to climb out. Most are released. Some, like me, are chosen for research.

Hatchlings swim frantically for 24 hours before stopping to eat. Then they hide in our sargassum feeding grounds until they reach a safe size. But we’re never really safe. Humans once killed us for art, soup and steaks. Some even sold our eggs as aphrodisiacs. Now we’re more protected by laws. Still, our biggest enemies, even more fearsome than sharks and whales, are boats, lights, fishnets and dredging machines.

It was a good life as a Research Ambassador. Humans are such fascinating creatures. But I am so happy to be young, beautiful and free.

Special Thanks Maura Kraus, Collier County senior environmental specialist; Dave Addison, retired co-director of environmental science, Conservancy of Southwest Florida; Markus Hennig, environmental specialist, Collier County Parks and Recreation.

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