Turtle crawl


Sun-Gazette Correspondent

SINGER ISLAND, Fla. – Standing in the dark one July night, 25 feet from the ocean’s edge, we listened to the surf waters breaking and hoped for a message over the walkie-talkie. The message would be a sighting of a sea turtle riding the surf, landing on the sand and wallowing up the beach to lay its eggs. We waited, and we waited.

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park was established in 1989 along the Atlantic Ocean. It is nestled on the north side of Singer Island, Fla. – south of Jupiter and north of West Palm Beach – just 4 miles east of Interstate 95.

The 325-acre park is named after its previous owner, John D. MacArthur. In the 1970s, MacArthur learned that part of his land was a biological treasure. So he donated the large acreage to become the only state park in Palm Beach County.

The park is on a 1.6-mile long land area with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Lake Worth Lagoon to the west. Entrance to the park is $5 per car and is good for all day.

Every day at 10 a.m., a free-guided tour is offered for the three distinct ecosystems of the park. A park volunteer starts the walk with information on a huge tree outside the center.

Standing tall is a strangler fig tree with its massive roots strangling a cabbage palm tree. How did that happen? The seeds of the fig, spread by bird droppings into the tops of the cabbage palm, take root and work their way to the ground eventually “strangling” the palm to death.

Maritime hammock,

estuary, dune trail

The Maritime Hammock straddles both sides of the estuary. The hammock – Native American for “shady place” – has lush tropical trees and literally forms a canopy of greenery overhead.

A guide will introduce you to many varieties of trees. The sea grape is prominent in south Florida and, in the hammock, it grows tall and straight with long clusters of “grapes” dangling from its branches. The gumbo limbo tree has red peeling bark. The canopy tree’s wood was used to carve carousel horses.

A 1,600-foot boardwalk takes you across the estuary of Lake Worth Lagoon. It is 20 miles long and once was a freshwater lake.

In 1877, an inlet was dredged at the south end of Singer Island to provide a water outlet to the ocean. This forced salt water to flow into the lagoon, changing its plant and wildlife habitats.

Once you pass over the boardwalk, you are on the barrier island with more hammock, the beach and the dune trail.

Walking on the beach, you might see “pits” in the sand about the diameter of a hula-hoop and more than 2 feet deep. Tracks, not unlike tire tread marks, lead from the water to the pit. This is where the turtles lay their eggs. Let’s go on a turtle walk!

My turtle walk story

After seeing the turtle pits, my guide said that only two more weeks of the Monday, Wednesday and Friday night turtle walks are scheduled. From 8 p.m. to midnight in May to August, the turtle walks allow groups to watch turtles lay their eggs.

At 8 p.m. in the Nature Center auditorium, a park ranger speaks and shows a video on turtle species and their nesting habits. While the group of 20 watches the video, turtle scouts go to the beach and position themselves for the watch. Some use binoculars and others use night vision glasses. They also are equipped with walkie-talkies.

Turtles can’t hear, but they are sensitive to light, so no LED screens or flashlights are allowed. Even the nearby condos have to adhere to lighting restrictions.

At 9 p.m., the group walks across the boardwalk to the beach. It is pitch dark and quiet except for the waves breaking in the surf.

We huddle on a wooden deck below the sand dunes and watch and wait. It’s hard to see anything in the darkness. Luckily, this Wednesday night, the waves are white-capped and some stars are shining. It is humid.

We take turns looking through binoculars. Nothing.

Finally, we hear a walkie-talkie. A sighting, but – wait – the turtle turns around and goes back in the water a false crawl.

Conditions were not right for her to lay her eggs, for reasons unknown. It could be the consistency of the sand or some light distractions; no one knows.

Three kinds of sea turtles nest in this area of South Florida. The largest are the leathernecks, weighing in at more than 700 pounds. By July 9, 2013, 27 leathernecks laid eggs on this 1.6 miles of beach.

The most popular turtles are loggerheads at 350 pounds. They numbered 805 layings by July 9.

The third species is the green turtle at 300 pounds and 535 layings. The green turtle, however, is an endangered species and groups are not allowed on the beach to watch them lay their eggs.

When the other species lay their eggs, groups actually can huddle around the turtle and watch it lay 120 eggs or so. This night, we waited and waited, only to have seven false crawls.

I am so disappointed! As I am to write a story on this park, I almost begged them to let me join the Friday night walk.

At 8 p.m. Friday, we follow the same routine. This night, the weather conditions are completely different. A rainstorm passed through just before 8.

Donning rain gear, we again gather on the wooden beach deck. It is very humid and mosquitoes have joined us. Our small group of only eight this time braves the threat of rain, the humidity and the mosquitoes to get our first turtle-laying-eggs experience.

We watch and wait. By 11 p.m.: nothing. Since our watch is to end at midnight and laying eggs usually takes an hour, our ranger calls in the scouts to head back to the Nature Center.

But one scout sees movement in the surf. Let’s wait. He sees a turtle start up the sand and near our wooden deck. The other scouts race to distinguish its tracks, as each species has its own distinct flipper tracks.

The report comes back. It is a green turtle. We cannot go on the beach. Straining my eyes through the binoculars, I barely make out this 300-pound turtle wallowing to the dunes. It looks like a rock moving, but at least I “see” a turtle.

The group moseys back to the Nature Center in disappointment. Where were the turtles? In the last week, 70 loggerheads and 123 greens laid eggs.

How do they know? Early each morning, scouts walk the beach, counting turtle pits and assessing the tracks. After laying her eggs in the dark and covering them with sand, the mother turtle immediately goes back into the water.

The eggs take two months to hatch and then, in the middle of the night, the hatched baby turtles waddle to the surf and swim away.

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is a great natural resource, an educational and recreational facility and turtle-nesting site to visit and explore. Hiking, swimming, kayaking and snorkeling are more activities to enjoy.

Two viewing nights, with no egg-laying turtles before midnight, was just a missed adventure on my part. But, since my parents live nearby, I will definitely sign up again for the turtle walk. I can’t wait!

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