She was a loggerhead turtle on a mission, to bury her eggs in the St. George Island sand by the light of the silvery moon,
But instead the bright lights of the barrier island beguiled her, and lured her to a near disastrous labor and delivery.
The maternity mayhem began sometime Sunday night, or very early Monday morning when the turtle became disoriented en route to preparing a nest on the island beach, and laying inside of it anywhere from 80 to 120 eggs.
At dusk, three members of the St. George Island Volunteer Turtlers - Donna Knutson, Tammy Shepherd, and Lynn Wilder - were conducting one of their nesting beach surveys, which they do every day during nesting season, which runs from May through October.
It was then they noticed something strange.
“We are looking for sea turtle crawls and we're specifically looking for an incoming and outgoing crawl,” said Janice Becker, the marine turtle permit holder for St. George Island. “They found an incoming crawl, but no outgoing crawl.”
Becker said this can sometimes mean the female is still in the process of nesting on the beach, or as it turned out in this case, that she was disoriented and in need of assistance.
The volunteers followed her crawl, as much as they could discern, until a young boy on a bike rode by with the clue they needed.
“He said there’s a turtle under our house,” said Becker.
Sure enough, the determined loggerhead had crossed East Gorrie Drive, went down a side street, busted a PVC pipe at a house on East Gulf Beach Drive, and crawled into a crevice and got stuck under the house.
“This is my seventh year conducting nesting surveys and this was the worst disorientation of a nesting female that I've seen so far,” said Becker, who was called immediately by her fellow turtlers to the scene. “She crawled around a quarter of a mile after nesting on the beach and she was exhausted.”
Becker estimated the Caretta caretta sea turtle weighed around 250 pounds. Soon a small crowd had gathered to help, including the visitors staying at the home, as well as Sgt. Brock Johnson with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.
“I can't thank everyone enough,” said Becker. “Volunteers kept wet towels on the sea turtle until more help arrived. We were able to free her from the spot where she was stuck under the house.
“Many other team members were still out conducting beach surveys. I can't thank all of the volunteers enough for their hard work, passion, and dedication,” she said.
Becker said there were indications the lady loggerhead had some minor scrapes, but once she was unstuck, she was active and there were no signs to indicate she needed medial attention.
Had she been listless, or clearly suffering injury, it would have meant a transport to Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, or the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea.
“There were no indications she would need rehab,” said Becker. “We then lifted her onto the sheriff's truck bed in order to get her back to the beach to be released.”
Johnson then drove the truck near to the water, and the crew placed the turtle close to, but not in, the water, giving her an easy opportunity to return to the gulf.
“She was pretty exhausted,” said Becker. “We wanted to see how she would crawl.”
Don’t think, though, the loggerhead’s visit to the nesting nursery is over for the season. Becker said loggerheads typically nest four to six times a season, in two-week intervals, so she’ll be back.
But the hope is that along with her hatchlings escaping predation by ghost crabs, raccoons and other hungry critters, this next time she won’t be distracted by lights from island homes that outshine the moonlight which nature provides as her beacon.
“If the home are brighter, they think that’s the correct way to go,” said Becker.
While islanders living directly along the gulf have long known about the need for turtle-friendly lighting on the exterior of their homes, there is a growing problem with the lights, both exterior and interior, that can be seen on properties even further from the beach.
“Sea turtles are very sensitive to light, so I believe that this nesting female became disoriented due to lights. House lights, both exterior and interior, can disorient sea turtles, as well as lights on the beach,” said Becker. “That's why it's very important to have sea turtle-friendly fixtures and amber LED bulbs on both housing and commercial properties, to close shades and blinds between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., and to use sea turtle safe red LED flashlights if you're on the beach at night.
“We always push for beachfront properties to have the proper lighting, but one thing to keep in mind is that the dune system was negatively impacted due to Hurricane Michael which means that more lights can be visible on the beach, even if the property is first or second tier and beyond,” she said. “Nests will be hatching soon, and we recorded the highest number of hatchling disorientations to date in 2019.”
In addition, as Sheriff A.J. Smith pointed out in a Facebook video Monday, some beachgoers have dug large holes on the beach and failed to fill them in, leaving another impediment in the way of sea turtles to have a productive nesting season.
“Clean, dark and flat is what we push,” said Becker. “It’s a simple thing to remember.”
While vacationers are encouraged to be on the lookout for disoriented turtles, it is important to note that it is unwise to mess with them.
“Since sea turtles are a state and federally protected species, any research or work with sea turtles has to be permitted, and all of our efforts are in coordination statewide to help sea turtles survive,” said Becker.
If you see a sea turtle in distress, please call the FWC Wildlife Hotline at (888) 404-3922. Dispatch will assess the situation, give instruction on what to do, and call the Turtle Patrol to assist if need be. You can also message the SGIVT Facebook page.