Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dreams of the Turtle Lady

Suzi Fox and the volunteers of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring program have saved thousands of turtles and shorebirds.

I rode over on an old beach cruiser that looked like all the paint had been replaced by rust.  Gorgeous is the right word to describe the day – sunshine pouring down like a veil and the Gulf of Mexico sparkling like a giant blue topaz.

As I turned into a quiet neighborhood, Spanish moss hung from a large tree and spiky epiphytes grew on overhead utility wires like hairy softballs.  We don’t have such things where I’m from but for Floridians, they’re weeds in the air.

I knew I was at the right place by the “Turtle Crossing” sign on the side fence and the brass doormat of swimming sea turtles.  I came to talk with Suzi Fox, the Executive Director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.  But if you ask people where to find the Turtle Lady, they’d point toward Suzi.  She said about the nickname “it’s a good thing I’m not saving skunks.”

Suzi answered the door bright and barefoot.  She welcomed me into her office, a small room in her pleasant home.  Her cheeks seemed to glow from often smiling -- a potential side effect of having a positive outlook.  Around her neck hung an ornament, a silver sea turtle, and I sat near boxes of red flags for marking sea turtle nests.

Suzi is as lively as her name and her twenty three years of turtle work implies.  That‘s twenty three years of combing the beach at 5 am every day six months out of the year.  That’s twenty three years of caring about something as magnificent and delicate as sea turtles eggs and infant sea turtles.

Walking sticks leaned against the wall in one corner of her office.  They stood like sentinels, or some kind of turtle egg divining rods.  One was topped with a hefty turquoise stone.  They have likely seen many a moon set, and the bright white sand glow with first light.

If Suzi or any of the other tireless volunteers find any turtle nests on their daily patrols, they stake it off.  The orange tape and wood stakes remind people that we share this lovely place with other creatures.

With the new turtle season freshly minted days ago, excitement filled Suzi’s eyes.  The turtles have not been on the island in six months.  The anticipation is almost overwhelming and always the question: will there be as many as last year?

“I dream turtles every night during the season,” Suzi said.

Let the dreams begin.  On this day, Suzi also has two pieces of good news – it’s early in the season and no one has left any lawn chairs on the beach and already one false crawl has been reported.

A false crawl happens when the female turtle essentially scopes out the beach but lays no eggs.  Trained observers can spot the telltale markings of a false crawl and the nests of buried eggs, both of which would earn nary a glance from the average beachgoer.

The turtles of Anna Maria Island, mostly loggerheads, like many marine turtles, essentially pull off one of nature’s greatest feats.  It’s prestige so fine and breathtakingly improbable that even scientists wax romantic.  No bigger than a toddler's hand, they climb their way out of a deep pit in the sand.  The turtles then make their way across the vast ocean completely on their own.

Scientists are not exactly sure what happens next but they are sure that an adult female turtle will return to the beach of her birth many years later and lay eggs.  They also know that the turtles regularly cross thousands of miles of dangerous seas.

The turtles survive the gauntlet of fishing hook strung hundreds of miles across the ocean like barbed wire.  Also, they must somehow dodge scoop-everything nets bigger than football fields.  Many of them do not make it.  The unintended catch of sea turtles kills thousands annually.

Suzi knows she cannot control those things but she can control protection of their habitat or surroundings.  In most places in Florida like Anna Maria Island, this entails a narrow ribbon of beach coveted by people and animals alike.

In fact, Suzi will say that she is not saving turtles; she’s saving their habitat.  The nuance is important because habitat loss to people is an insidious and often imperceptible slide into oblivion for countless species, including the sea turtle.  Take a little here, take a little there, soon enough there is none left.

The savings are beginning to pay off.  Last year, 362 nests were catalogued by Suzi and her team, which is a marked increase from the nineties.

Motherhood swirled around us as we talked.  Here I was visiting Suzi near Mother’s Day and female turtles laden with eggs were the heart of our conversation.  Also, it was Suzi’s mother that taught her how important it is to give back and her mother also indirectly helped Suzi discover her passion for turtles.

When Suzi’s mother died in the early nineties, Suzi went into serious depression.  The kind of malaise where getting out of bed and making it to the shower becomes too much.  Everything simply seemed hopeless. 

One day a friend dragged Suzi to the beach to look for turtles as part of the island’s nascent volunteer program.  Suzi is not a marine biologist and hails from Grand Rapids Michigan, a place with exactly zero sea turtles at last count. 

That was her first day and she’s still going strong.  The “still going strong” part comes from her mother, too.

“She was an inspiration for me,” said Suzi.

The female turtles laying eggs on the beach could probably relate.  There’s something eternal in their maternal ways. 

There’s bravery, too.  When Suzi was a young volunteer, the group of retired men who started the program refused to abide new federal rules on how to care for sea turtle eggs.  They had been digging up nests and incubating them on their back porches in coolers. 

Soon enough, they lost their permit.  Knowing nothing about managing a volunteer program or how to save turtles, Suzi re-applied for their permit.  The then mayor and one of the founders of the original turtle program yelled at her publicly.  Suzi cried, publicly.  All the turtle volunteers at the time quit the program.

“It was horrible,” Suzi said.

Eventually many original volunteers came back to the fold.  One volunteer has been with the “new” program for 18 years.  People are getting it.  A few years ago, Suzi sent out a call for a volunteer day.  She needed 50 people.  Two hundred showed up.  Some drove all the way from Orlando.

Recently, the program has expanded to keeping an eye on shore birds too, and other duties, some seemingly unrelated to saving turtles.

When the turtles hatch, they crawl toward the brightest spot in the night, which is hopefully stars over the ocean, and not a flood light on somebody’s home or business.  Like Mother Nature’s lost souls, many hatchings are lured away from the water and toward certain death by artificial lights. 

To remedy this, Suzi and some of her volunteers show up at retail and residential places with free special light bulbs, ladder in hand.

Suzi’s philosophy is to push for conservation “in a nice manner”.  Sometimes that works but sometimes there are people whose narrow view of the world is taken up mostly by themselves.

Recently, a developer proposed a project that would fill in sea grass habitat, a favorite sea turtle meal.  Suzi went to the public hearing and stood up in a sea of people.  Her blond hair and bright violet dress caught everyone’s attention.

“Last year we had 362 nests and 13,000 hatchlings,” she said. “If you don’t preserve these waters, 22 of my 55 years will have been pointless.”

Suzi noted that the handkerchiefs and tissues came out on that one.

Sometimes her turtle dreams are disrupted by early morning calls from the police.  She knows everyone on the force by first name and they certainly know the Turtle Lady.

The phone rings.  Suzi looks at her clock.  It’s 3 am.  She has to get up in two hours to patrol the beach.

Excitement dances on the line and Suzi has heard it before.  There’s an ancient animal on the beach doing a life affirming and miraculous thing.  The police felt they just had to let her know.

“Is she injured?”  Asks Suzi.

“No, she’s great,“ he says. "She’s amazing.”

“That’s wonderful.  Enjoy it.  I’ll see you later.” 

If Suzi can get back to sleep, there’s still time for more of her own turtle dreams.

Since May when I visited with Suzi, her team has protected 316 turtle nests, and multiple shorebirds including eight least terns, which are designated as threatened by the federal government. 

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