K¹² International Academy Teacher Celebrates Sea Turtle Season

Why I Love Sea Turtles…

By Lynn Gussman

From mid-April through October of each year, thousands of sea turtles crawl onto the shores of Florida to dig their nests and lay eggs. I love every one of them. I love them so much that my daughter sometimes refers to me as “the crazy turtle lady.” Oddly, this title fills me with a strange sense of pride.

I belong to one of thousands of conservation groups around the world whose aim is to protect these ancient reptiles. The modern sea turtle species have been around for about 110 million years, since the age of the dinosaur – but each species is now endangered or threatened. Threats to sea turtle survival are largely human related and include pollution, oil spills, poaching and loss of habitat.

This morning I explore the beach at sunrise in search of turtle tracks. Should I find tracks, I will look for evidence of a nest and mark it with stakes and ribbon. We are nearing the end of the nesting season and so I find no new nests. However, a nest that has hatched several days ago must now be evaluated.

Using gloved hands, I dig into the moist, heavy sand. I feel with my fingers for any softer areas which might indicate that I am nearing the clutch. I dig down about the full length of my arms and find my prize – the egg chamber. I carefully remove the contents and am happy to find that it is a very successful nest. I count 97 rubbery egg shells abandoned by the tiny turtles they had once embraced. The data that I collect may be used by researchers to better understand and therefore better protect sea turtles. There are a few unhatched eggs which I handle with the utmost care. I will rebury these eggs on the off chance that they still may hatch. Near the bottom of the clutch I find three loggerhead hatchlings that did not emerge with their siblings, trapped by roots and debris.

I lift the new life from the dark hole into the orange glow of the morning sun. Each turtle fits neatly in my palm. The small shells are shaped like teardrops. Their heads and flippers seem comically large in comparison with their compact, chunky bodies. I place the turtles onto the sand and they begin to slowly and alternately move their flippers, crawling toward the ocean. Hatchlings orient toward light. Usually, the turtles emerge in the coolness of evening and use the moonlight shining against the ocean as a beacon to their new lives.

The trek across the sand is painstaking as the surf rolls in to greet the hatchlings. The moment that the salty water engulfs their bodies, they begin to frantically swim. Amazingly, the tiny turtles move expertly against the rough current, through the breakers, beginning their 10,000 mile circumnavigation of the Atlantic. Should they survive to maturity, these turtles will return to the beach where they were hatched to nest and begin the cycle anew.

I am privileged to work with these ancient mariners and as a result, I feel more connected to and appreciative of the natural beauty of our world. I share my years of conservation experience in our K¹² International Academy classroom, particularly when my students and I are exploring basic ecological principles. I find that my enthusiasm is contagious and that students share their knowledge of the wild creatures that live closest to their own homes. We are united in our joy of wildlife. Can you name some animals native to your own environment? Which are endangered or threatened and why? Which native animal is your favorite? Do you love sea turtles?

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