Here’s what I love most about living on a skinny spit of land off the coast of central Florida between the deep, blue Atlantic Sea and the shimmery Banana River: the sea, no contest, the sea. Every day I get to bury my toes in the sand in all kinds of weather: come rain or come shine, come blow-in-your-face-and-eat-the-sand-high-wind days and the infrequent calm, quiet day. This is deeply therapeutic in these troubled times.
Here’s what I don’t love about living in Florida: July and August. Last summer, we had sixty-six consecutive days with temperatures above 90 degrees. Factor in high humidity, and merely walking to the mailbox at the end of the driveway can take my breath away.
Given the blistering heat of the day, I’ve been shifting many of my walks to night. I venture out hours past when the sun has flared that yellow and purplish-gray-pink that stops me in my tracks while loading the dishwasher to go sit on the couch and watch as the light show in the sky slowly fades away.
It’s about a three-minute walk over to the beach, and on the way, I pass my neighbors walking their dogs one last time before they tuck them into bed for the night. “Good night, Harry,” I say to the terrier on the corner, whose owner’s name I forget. I feel a wariness out alone at night, all my senses are heightened, and one friend looks appalled when I tell her about my late-night rambles. She says, “Don’t do that. Are you nuts?”
Perhaps I am. But, marvels await. On this night, it is a balmy 82 degrees and still humid enough that dampness gathers at my bra line as I pass through the break in the arch of trees from the parking lot to the beach and sink my toes in the sand. It is like I’m leaving one dimension and entering into another, a kind of Narnia-like experience but instead of entering through a wardrobe, I’m just tromping down a faded wooden ramp to the beach. Clouds blot out the moon and the stars.
There are a few other strays like me on the beach, but in the dark, I don’t see them until they’re almost on top of me. They give me a little fright when they appear out of the shadows, and I catch my breath as sweat pricks my armpits.
Suddenly the clouds shift, it’s like a giant’s hand pulls a curtain aside, and now the moon throws light on the beach and waves. I see bright lights up ahead. Uh-oh, I think. This is not good. As I get closer, I see a couple of guys wearing head lamps surrounded by fishing gear.
It is turtle nesting season on one of the largest sites in the world, and lights on the beach, any and all lights, whether from walkers, fishermen, nearby houses or condos are prohibited. Do they know that their lights can disorient the turtle mothers and interrupt their ancient practice of returning to the site where they first hatched to lay their eggs? Do they know that their lights can literally stop the turtles in their tracks? Do they care?
I walk by as they swig from cans of Budweiser that glint in the moonlight. We do not speak.
Then several yards up the beach I see something at the water’s edge. Something large. What is that? I stop and squint, not sure what I see. I take a few more steps and then a few more and then see a big, blocky mass moving. Oh my! It dawns on me that it must be a sea turtle coming out of the ocean – in all likelihood to lay eggs. She must weigh 600 pounds, at least. I keep my distance as she ponderously lumbers up the sand to start flippering out a nest. It looks like such an inefficient process. I want to help. Give her a little boost. But, of course, I don’t – I keep my distance like I’m supposed to. Besides, she knows what she’s doing.
My husband and I witnessed this once before on a turtle walk a few years ago near the Sebastian Inlet, about 45 minutes south of Cocoa Beach. We stood out on a starry, starry night swatting away mosquitoes for a couple of hours, about to give up and go home when we got the signal that there was a turtle ahead laying eggs. Around midnight about fifteen of us walked about fifteen minutes down the beach to where a turtle was in the middle of plopping out eggs as if in a trance. They looked like gooey golf balls.
I was squirmy and uncomfortable watching. I felt like we were violating her private space, although she seemed oblivious to the humans gathered around gawking at her. After a while, we withdrew quietly getting drenched by a rogue wave that swept in over the beach on the walk back to our cars. Back home, I set my sneakers out on the porch to dry, which took a couple of days given the high humidity.
So tonight, I know this process will take a few hours, at least. While I stand there, I start to feel protective and want to make sure that no one comes near, especially the beer-swigging, headlamp-wearing guys. Then an elderly couple emerges from the darkness. She has long silver hair that catches the moonlight and he wears a cap and uses a cane to help steady his gait.
We stand together in the moonlight for nearly an hour watching the turtle dig her nest, sand flying out to the sides. We eventually, reluctantly turn to leave before she lays any eggs. However, we are confident she will do what she came to do, cover up the nest, and then lumber back down the beach and slip into the sea.
When I approach the guys, still fishing, still drinking beer, I hesitate and wonder if I should say something. But maybe it’s better not to draw their attention to the turtle. I walk on and don’t speak.
I sleep a lousy night’s sleep worried about the turtle and wonder if I should have said something to the fishermen. Early the next morning I go back to the beach to check out the scene. It’s easy to find the turtle tracks in the sand. And it’s clear that someone has been there – happily, not anyone doing mischief but Sea Turtle Preservation volunteers, who have already marked the nest and cordoned off the area. I heave a huge sigh of relief. All is well.
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