Friday, June 24, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tracks of The Queen Mum of Sea Turtles

Yes...THAT, is me kneeling beside the fresh tracks of a Leatherback Sea Turtle and you know I am no tiny girl. I named her The Queen Mum because.. well, after all, she laid her nest on British soil and I have so many QUEENly friends dear enough to name ANYthing or anyONE after, not to mention my own status as "Queen of my own Universe" and MUMs have been on our minds. AND I have NEVER seen giant tracks before. I thought 57 inches was giant. Not so, these were shy of 6 feet across. REGAL!

Thanks to Katie and Mike Wiley for sending us off on a LONG SIZZLING HOT HIKE to verify what they thought they had seen. I am still smiling. In a couple of months up to 100 turtle hatchlings will emerge from this nest and easily make sea because there are no condos, no unnatural noises, no lights, no boat parking etc etc. Mother Nature herself could not have chosen a better site than Cow Wreck Beach, Anagada.
Here are some facts I looted from

The BVI's host only 50 to 100 nesting Leatherbacks per year currently.

CRITICAL HABITAT: 50 CFR 17.95 U.S. Virgin Islands – A strip of land 0.2 miles wide (from mean high tide inland) at Sandy Point Beach on the western end of the island of St. Croix beginning at the southwest cape to the south and running 1.2 miles northwest and then northeast along the western and northern shoreline, and from the southwest cape 0.7 miles east along the southern shoreline. 50 CFR 226.207 The waters adjacent to Sandy Point, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin islands, up to and inclusive of the waters from the hundred fathom curve shoreward to the level of mean high tide with boundaries at 17 ̊ 42’12" North and 64 ̊ 50’00" West
HABITAT: The leatherback is the most pelagic of the sea turtles. Adult females require sandy nesting beaches backed with vegetation and sloped sufficiently so the crawl to dry sand is not too far. The preferred beaches have proximity to deep water and generally rough seas.

DESCRIPTION: The leatherback is the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles. The adult leatherback can reach 4 to 8 feet in length and 500 to 2000 pounds in weight. Its shell is composed of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges or keels. The skin is predominantly black with varying degrees of pale spotting; including a notable pink spot on the dorsal surface of the head in adults. A toothlike cusp is located on each side of the gray upper jaw; the lower jaw is hooked anteriorly. The paddle-like clawless limbs are black with white margins and pale spotting. Hatchlings are predominantly black with white flipper margins and keels on the carapace. Jellyfish are the main staple of its diet, but it is also known to feed on sea urchins, squid, crustaceans, tunicates, fish, blue-green algae, and floating seaweed.

REASONS FOR CURRENT ENDANGERED STATUS: The crash of the Pacific leatherback population, once the world’s largest population, is believed primarily to be the result of exploitation by humans for the eggs and meat, as well as incidental take in numerous commercial fisheries of the Pacific. Other factors threatening leatherbacks globally include loss or degradation of nesting habitat from coastal development; disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting; excessive nest predation by native and non-native predators; degradation of foraging habitat.

Turtle Tracks 2011


It's that time again and this year loggerhead sea turtles are *jammin'* to get in and lay their beautiful nests.

6 nests for our small sector "Laguna Key" by mid-June is thrilling!

You can also get info on Laguna Key Team activity and all the other teams across Alabama by going to the Alabama "Share the Beach Volunteer Program" site at

You can now track Alabama's 10 tagged turtles via satellite by visiting There is lots of nifty turtle stuff going on here but you won't want to miss the travels of Ella, Ileana, Katherine and (as yet unnamed) as we hope they will visit Alabama beaches again and again.

Laguna Key Data

Nest.. Location.. Date... Track Width... # eggs ...Tagged.. Satellite Name
B-1... 3117 WBB. 05/25.. 39 inches .......125
B-2... 3257 DDR. 05/27.. 30 inches .......UNK
B-3... 2361 WBB. 06/07.. 28 inches .......105 ..... Yes...... Amy
B-4... 2001 WBB. 06/11.. 31 inches .......UNK ..... Yes...... Ileana
B-5... 3073 WBB. 06/14.. 40 inches .......075 ..... Yes...... Katherine
B-6... 3017 WBB. 06/15.. 36 inches .......UNK ..... Yes...... SHERRY

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Look Back at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: 3

I hear a lot of feedback about the process of cleaning the beach (working at a bar opens me up to a lot of whining, complaining, and education), and most of the comments are far off from the truth. I don't know much about dealing with this oil spill...I'm just a math and science ignorant writer, bartending during the day and searching for turtles at night. But I'm out there working, so here is what I do and what I have learned:

First off, the oil on the beach is bad. It's really bad. And worst of all, most of it is hidden. The sun melts the oil during the day, sinking it below the sand. The sand is also caught by the wind and constantly buries new oil washing up. Want proof? Head down to any beach, 5, 10, 15, 25 feet from the wrack line, and start digging. You WILL find oil. 6, 8 inches below the beautiful white fluffy surface of our beach lie all of BP's lies in thick, orangey black streaks and patties. The sand will stick to your hands when you try to brush it off, and the waxy feeling will remain until you get to some good soap and water. I found this while digging for turtle eggs, and Mama T did too, as she did not lay in that spot after all.

I was working on the beach the night before last and the oil washing up was the worst I have seen. I say this for several reasons. 1. It was extremely plentiful, filling viscous pools and washing over our just-cleaned sand. 2. There were a variety of textures: chocolate mousse oil, thick mud oil, diluted rust colored oil, and thick brown foam. 3. For the first time, I witnessed oil and water seeping up from the ground. In a newly cleaned patch of sand, when an atv would cross over or I would make a footprint, the tainted water would fill the impression almost immediately. This is near the water line, where the sand below the surface is damp. 4. It seems the diluted oil is obviously so due to dispersants. The machines only pick up tar balls, aka weathered oil, and this oil cannot weather due to the chemicals breaking it down. This cannot be properly cleaned by hand either, and the sand is eventually discarded (if not simply buried by the wind and water).

We don't deal with this freshly washed up oil. Our machines sift tar balls out of dry or damp sand, and do so at a fair success level. The tar balls might be large...fist size, golf ball size, all the way down to nickel size, dime size, smaller. The tar balls are there even though they aren't always seen from a distance. Once they collect a full load of tar balls and trash, the hazardous material is collected and dumped in specially outfitted dumpsters.

For me, this system is a positive effort: our operators are local and care as ferociously about the beach as we do; the contract is through a local company, which helps our economy and is extremely important to me as a resident of this city and this state.

We work at night, from 9 PM-7 AM because it's cool enough that the tar is solidified rather than its softer daytime form. We run with 6 or 7 large sifting machines normally, which means 6 or 7 turtle team armed ATVs accompanying. We flank the machines, searching as we move for turtle tracks, turtle nests, or the mama turtles themselves. We have been finding each of these on a fairly regular basis. In the case that we find something, we shut down the entire operation, mark the tracks with wooden stakes and florescent tape, or, in the case of a turtle mother, watch excitedly and wait until she is finished nesting.

It is the most fulfilling job I have ever had.

A Look Back at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: 2

The Laguna Key Team of Share the Beach made history this afternoon--or, rather, our baby turtles did. B-1, our first Laguna Key nest of the season and the first turtle nest discovered on the Alabama coast this year, is in transport as I write.

This nest has had a rough start. Mama T nested a bit too close to the oiled water, and our careful and devoted team moved the 127 eggs against the dune for protection from weather, predators, and oil. After much political and scientific debate, the decision was made to begin transporting the Gulf loggerhead turtle nests to the Atlantic side of Florida, where they may have a fighting chance of survival. Today amidst a media circus (which including Jeff Corwin broadcasting with both MSNBC and Animal Planet) our team gently dug down into the nest, packed up the original sand, moved the sand from each egg, marked the shells, and carefully placed them one at a time in styrofoam coolers. Anytime we touch turtle eggs they are handled with extreme caution, as if we are holding nitroglycerin. We moved the coolers to a specially formatted FedEx truck and said our prayers and sang them a song and sent them on their way with tears in our eyes. It is very scary: will they survive the move? How will they hatch in a monitored lab? Will they be carefully and delicately handled? Will it hurt them to have a marker hole bored into their shells? And mostly, how will they handle a cold Atlantic jolt when Gulf loggerheads generally hatch into nearly 80 degree water? The life of a turtle hatchling is full of uncertainty and only a tiny fraction ever survive; these turtles at least will have a fighting chance.

Here is the educational and sentimental letter that was sent along with the nests, in addition to disposable cameras, chocolate turtles for the handlers, and a number of other goodies. It was written by Debbie Willis, or, as you'll see, the turtle hatchlings. It made me cry. A lot. You have to understand that it is very emotional for us. We find these nests, we care for them, we monitor their progress, watch and help them hatch and emerge from the nest, and bid them goodbye only as they hit the water and swim away with their furiously flipping tiny flippers. When we look at these eggs now, they are just one tiny aspect of the affected environment. All we can do is help on a small scale as the oil continues to pour into our Gulf. It is overwhelming to think on the large scale and when you do, it makes for an emotional and mental mini breakdown. But if we can save even one of those babies from our little nest, that's something.

Dear Mama T,

Hey Mama, so much has happened since you crawled ashore and left us alone on this Alabama beach. This real nice group of people found us. I think they call themselves the Laguna Key Team with Share the Beach. It was your tracks which led them to us. They said your crawl was 39 inches wide and 30 feet from the water. What they did next was look for "fluffed" sand in hopes of finding us. Digging can be real dangerous to us if they use a sharp object so they use the sides of their hands. Being careful is their goal.

You wouldn't believe how excited they were when they located your clutch! Did you know we were the first nest found on Alabama beaches this year? They all seemed so saddened because they needed to relocate us to even higher ground above the wrack line. It seems that something called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has them very worried about us. We heard them say that we could die if oily water was allowed to enter our nest. Oh Mama, we don't want to perish after you labored so hard to put us here. We know you did everything you could to keep us from harm.

We were wondering about your health out there in the Gulf of Mexico, Mama. How are you surviving in that oil? What are you eating? Can you find clean water anywhere? We guess your instincts made you come here despite the oil, just to do what you were born to do. We love you.

We almost forgot to tell you this one and it is something big. These really nice kind people measured your nest including depth and circumference, and then dug one identical to yours. Then each one of us was picked up, one by one, never rolled, and placed into a bucket with the same sand you so lovingly laid us in. Wow, they put us in the new nest just like we were in the original nest! This group of "new parents" placed a grate over us and marked the center of the nest. The grate is supposed to keep out predators. We never did care for crabs, coyotes, or foxes. They think we taste good. Next they put up stakes with green ribbon to mark us so we look really special on the beach. We have an identification placard that lets visitors know we are protected and they can't mess with us or they will get in big trouble.

Mama, have you ever heard of the news media? They are everywhere--always asking questions. Your nest has been all over the news. We were on all the local channels, WKRG, WPMI, WALA, and some of the nationals. I think I heard NBC, CNBC, and ABC. Who would have ever thought when you left us here in the dark of the night that we would cause such a commotion?

Well Mom, the big day is today. We are being relocated to a place called Florida, Cape Canaveral, or something like that. Another group of people with Fish and Wildlife are going to work with our turtle tenders here in Gulf Shores to relocate all of your eggs to a place without that oil in the water. It's really sad for us; these turtle people have loved us so and guarded our nest with nothing but true love in their souls. I hear they have a great time nest sitting waiting for us to hatch and run to the water. They are saying the Gulf is not safe for us and we do not stand any chance for survival. Mom, that's true love. Well a FedEx truck, whatever that may be, is going to take us in our styrofoam crates to a place in Florida to hatch. We are scared -- everything from now on is unknown. We hope to see you in the Gulf Stream one day.

A Look Back at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: 1

A Blog Originally Posted on Day 71 of the BP Oil Spill:

All we can do is continue working, and so we do. We are keeping an optimistic outlook here on Pleasure Island, but every day is riddled with uncertainty, high-running emotions, and a lot of work. I am struggling to record everything that is going on...heartbreaking is not a strong enough word to describe the feeling of loss and helplessness as your home is slowly consumed.

Things are chaotic down here. Those of us in the service industry are scrambling to prepare for the free Jimmy Buffett and Friends concert meant to boost our flailing economy. We are struggling to keep our guests happy while people fight over the limited tickets and as the tropical storm and the oil change the details. We are keeping our fingers crossed for the 4th of July celebrations down here, hoping for at least one last money-making hoo-rah before things get worse. We are trying, so hard, to keep an upbeat attitude, for our guests, for our families, for our own sanity, but it is very difficult as we know that even now, on Day 71, oil is still flowing into the Gulf at an alarming rate, and that there is no indication the leak will be capped any time soon.

Our dwindling tourists, excited about the impending concert and Independence Day activities, seek out alternate entertainment as they cannot swim, fish, boat, or float in the Gulf of Mexico. They walk the beach and clean tar off their kids' feet and hands at the end of the day, accidentally walk oil into the swimming pools, and go go-cart racing or miniature golfing at night. Thank goodness for our live music community. It really helps to have that here. Thank goodness for Jimmy Buffett, as condo rentals have skyrocketed and the restaurants are feeling a happy buzz, if only for a week or so.

The fishing industry has come to a screeching halt. Our seafood is not safe to consume, our waters are not safe to boat in. Fishermen, shrimpers, seafood distributors, charter captains, anyone with any experience in boating whatsoever is fighting for jobs to skim, to pull boom, to patrol for oil. BP is hiring and thankfully our governor finally mandated that Alabama workers must be Alabama residents, so SOME lucky people are finding jobs. They are also finding these jobs to be unforgiving; it is hot, hard work and employees are quickly dehydrated, overheated, and exhausted. The turn over for BP employees is big.

I myself am working nights on the beach, monitoring heavy sifting machines as they move down the beaches at one-two mph, shaking tar balls out of our once white, now reddish orange sand. My job is to make sure that the machines do not destroy turtles or any sign of turtle activity. I fell into this position thanks to my 8 years volunteer experience with the Share the Beach sea turtle conservation program. One light in this darkness: we are finding nests. Momma turtles are still laying their eggs. Last week we actually found two mothers in the midst of laying in two nights (one discovered by Matt Reynolds, one by my own Momma Sherry). Sadly, we will have to wait out the majority of the gestation period, then excavate the nests and relocate the eggs to the eastern shores of Florida, where the babies will have a fighting chance at avoiding our hatchlings imprint the beach they hatch at and return to that same place to nest when they reach maturity, we will be missing a generation down the road here in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

I am quite pleased with the clean up efforts, finally, here at home. Now that we have locals working, motivation and passion are evident in the crews. The only problems? We don't have enough people to cover the beach, and the oil keeps coming. Every day we clean the work is undone. However, we are all working round the clock to keep our beaches oil free.

Wildlife is changing behavior. Marine life has moved in close to shore as the oxygen has been depleted from the water. Sand crabs are chocolate-colored, no longer white. I've noted many unfamiliar birds, some of which cannot fly when threatened. The death toll for sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and fish continues to climb.

It is very emotionally draining. We're tired and we're hurting, and we appreciate the well-wishes from the rest of the country and the world. As we continue to note, our communities down here can handle hurricanes, we can handle tornadoes and we can recover, together, from anything that nature throws at us. This oil is an entirely different animal. Although we are the blind leading the blind in this case, we continue to support each other, to seek solutions, to keep our chins up, to work hard to protect our beaches, our waters, our animals, our economy, our very way of life. We continue to believe that BP and the brilliant people of this world will find a solution to the leak and that, eventually, we will see a light at the end of the tunnel, and an end to this treacherous disaster.