29 September 2007

Mapping Asphalt

As a biologist in a National Park, I have many different responsibilities with animals -- shore birds, sea turtles, gopher tortoises, whatever crawls, flies, walks, swims or slithers its way into our forests and beaches. Never did I expect that taking GPS locations of asphalt chunks would be part of my job.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan flattened our beaches at the Santa Rosa area, Fort Pickens and Perdido Key. Roads were replaced in time for the 4th of July weekend in 2005. Shortly after, they were destroyed again in Tropical Storm Arlene and Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina. It's taking some time to determine the best way to rebuild the roads this time.

The Santa Rosa area road will be started in October of this year -- as a hurricane evacuation route, it is a priority. Only two bridges reach the mainland from this barrier island, one in Navarre and one in Pensacola Beach. At the moment, the two are separated by the washed out road in Santa Rosa. If we lose one of the bridges, people on one side of the island will need boats or ferries to get back to mainland Florida.

This leaves me on the beach, with a GPS backpack, wandering around looking for significant chunks of asphalt from the earlier roads. It's not hard -- there are lots of fields, planks, piles, virtual mountains even, of asphalt strewn throughout the park. The road crews will remove everything larger than a brick, so I must locate each of these pieces on my GPS. It means lots of walking in the still hot sun, lots of standing still waiting for satellite fixes, and hours of boredom as my brain screams to do a little work.

There are some areas that are too sensitive for road crews. When the road washed out, new wetlands were created. These marine nurseries and grass flats serve as a buffet for migrating and wintering shorebirds, create habitat for spawning crabs and fish, filter contaminants and nutrients out of the water, and act as a sponge, absorbing water as tides rise and storms threaten. They are a great resource economically, in the food chain and in natural coastal protection. There are ten to twenty foot slabs of asphalt even here. Do I want to map them and invite machines in to tear up the delicate soil, uproot sea oats, Juncus and Spartina, and scatter the Piping Plovers and other birds feeding on the flats? It seems more appropriate to leave these asphalt mats to the erosive powers of wind, rain and sea, to be reclaimed by the birds and sand, and made part of a new salt march ecology. It's a tough call, but I think it's the right one. Thankfully, the decision really isn't up to me.

After three days of mapping on ATV and on foot, I'm looking forward to a day mapping tidelines and counting the hundreds of gulls, terns, sandpipers, herons and their friends that sit along the shore. If I'm lucky, I may even see a loggerhead hatchling or two...

28 September 2007

Spared a Storm, but the Seas are Choppy

Tropical Depression 10 never even made it to Tropical Storm status last week, which is a good thing... The seas still grew pretty rough for the Gulf Coast, so we're happy we let the hatchlings go a bit early. The waves are small by human standards, but just imagine how huge a five-foot wave looks to a newborn animal the size of a half-dollar.

There is a beauty in a sea this strong. Even as a Tropical Depression, it re-shaped the shore overnight, leaving behind the sea's placating gift of glossy, unmarred shells as a reminder that the sea is both power and grace. Sitting on the shore, listening to the rushing winds and crashing waves, I realized yet again how small and insignificant my petty worries are. By next month, I won't remember what troubled my thoughts today, but I will remember this refreshing energetic morning on the Gulf of Mexico. Both humbling and empowering, it is a day worth saving in my bank of magical memories.

20 September 2007

High Tides in Turtle Time

It's a windy night on the beach, and the waves are starting to pick up, with a strong pull to the west. The Park has put us on Hurricane status III, which doesn't mean much; there isn't even a storm yet, though there may be over the next few days. If so, it's likely to be tropical storm at worst. We will, however, have high tides and flooding by tomorrow. So, it has been a long and fun day getting ready.... The best part was helping more hatchlings get to sea.

We have two nests that are hatching tonight. Normally, we let them hatch at their own rate with no interference, but in some circumstances, we may have to move a nest just before hatching to prevent hatchlings from flooding in a storm event. One of these nests hatched on Monday, so it was time to check for stragglers anyway. The other was due to emerge tonight or tomorrow, when the weather is supposed to be bad, and it may be impossible to reach the nest as the sea tends to breach the island. We spent the evening checking these nests and others to make sure we gave these endangered creatures every possible survival advantage.

Turtle hatchlings are tiny beings -- at times tonight, I had 8 or 9 in my hand, as I reached into the nest, boiling with wee loggerheads, as they struggled to reach the beach and the sea. We took these turtles a little closer to the water to let them go, to give them a head start before the tides and waves grew too strong for their miniature flippers. Eighty-four little loggerheads and 20 big (in comparison) greens reached the relative safety of the Gulf of Mexico tonight.

As they headed to the sea, the turtles first found a light on the horizon. Some chose the quarter moon, until it slipped behind the growing cloudbank. Some oriented towards Portofino, a four-towered condo to the west, and some headed east towards the urban glow from Navarre. Town lights reflected off the low-hanging clouds, bouncing light back to the ground, creating an eerie grey ambience in the evening mist. Time after time, I picked up a wayward turtle and turned it towards the south and the Gulf of Mexico. When there are 84 turtles on the beach, that can be a constant job.

For nearly an hour, I watch as turtles crawl over the berm created by the rising tide, flip on their backs and flail, waving one flipper in the air as if asking for help, until they right themselves and crawl seaward once again. Some capricious animals try to crawl back UP the beach, perhaps to the safety of the known world in the nest they've left behind. In the crowd, turtles bump into each other, crawl over the heads and flippers of their siblings and disorient in new directions. It's like watching the Three Stooges as these animals strive to understand this new world above the earth, hearing the crashing waves, smelling the fresh breeze, and learning to crawl.

As soon as they have these lessons down pat, they are rudely awakened by their next, imperative lesson -- they must learn to swim. As the first wave washes over them, nudging them a foot or two back up the beach, it threatens to drag them into a new, watery world. Startled, the turtles seem to shake off their salt-water baptism and search for the horizon once again. A few recalcitrant animals seem even more determined to crawl back to the known elements on land, as if they fear the sea. With gentle prodding and redirection, they eventually learn to swim into an oncoming wavelet at the sea's edge.

What a difficult start to life! I think that's part of why these animals fascinate me so much -- they are so determined to survive, though they face nearly impossible hurdles in their first few days of life. After finally reaching the sea, they must swim for miles, evading predators, until they reach the deep sea currents where they can eat, find shelter in floating rafts of sargassum and random debris, and grow for years until they return to near-shore habitat as juveniles.

I crawled along on my knees for almost an hour, paranoid about the possibility of crushing a turtle under my boots if I walked along the shore. By the time the last turtle reaches the sea, my pants are soaked, there's sand in my ears and bellybutton (don't even ask), and my hair is a tangled mess that I consider cutting when I think of the time it will take to tame it. But, it's all in a days work as a turtle girl.

16 September 2007

Coastal Clean-Up

Yesterday was Coastal Clean Up Day. People from around the world joined together to pick up the trash that litters our beaches, both from the flotsam that comes in on the tides, and the beach visitors that leave their trash behind. One is inevitable, while we continue to use our oceans as dumping grounds; the other is inexcusable irresponsibility.

On the one section of beach I worked with in the National Park, here's what we found:

13,290 beer bottles
32,516 been and soda cans
927 Gatorade/sports drink bottles
12 dish detergent bottles
48 bleach bottles
56 beach chairs (some brand new)
12 plastic porch chairs
3 fishing rods
18 random pieces of foam
128 Styrofoam cups
212 plastic cups
27 lighters
12 cigarette packs (don't even ask about the cigarette butts!)
1,245 gallon jugs
57 beach rafts
96 tires
countless plastic bags
326 balloons
miles of rope and fishing line
3 large (over 100 feet) seine nets
12 cast nets
24 grills (yes, people leave them on the beach after a cook-out, and never return)
13 tents (people come for vacation, buy a Walmart tent and LEAVE IT on the beach!)
214 pairs of shoes, and another 334 single shoes
1 bra
3 bathing suits (I don't want to know what happened there...)
boat and airplane parts
27 milk crates
2 buoys
6 boat bumpers

This beach is unbelievable beautiful -- 7 miles of sugary sand without a building on it once you leave the visitors center (restrooms, pavilions, etc). This end of the island is very narrow at points -- you can stand in the center and see the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay behind you. Maritime forests, still dry and burnt from Hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, line the north shore, their scarred skeletal arms reaching for the cloud scudded sky. Sea oats sway in the breeze and catch blowing sand, building up the dunes, and the island, with their extensive root system. Great Blue Herons stalk prey while affecting regal poses along the north shore marshes. Osprey hunt from overhead, grabbing wriggling fish in their talons to feed their young. Silver white light glints from sunlight reflected off the rainbow of fish scales. As the sun scoots behind a cloud, the clear waves flash from blue to green, dissolving in a splash of white foam as they hit the beach. Sanderlings and sandpipers dance to the cadence of the waves, wading with feathered bellies dipping into the sea as they run from the approaching water.

A loon floats ashore to dry off after the long commute from the Maine coast, but this one is fiestier than most, jabbing at me as I try to disentangle the clear fishing line wrapped around it's beak and neck. How can he eat like this? After snipping away the last bit, I back up, and the bird paddles the sand as he escapes back to the rocking waves. Humans are too much trouble. A gull trips along, with a six-pack ring jutting out of it's beak. It's time for the scissors again, and a bird self-defense class. Those bills can hurt!

I can understand fishing line wrapped around a bird -- the line is easy to lose and hard to find once it's dropped. Large fish run with hooks and line all the time. What I don't understand are the thousands of beer cans left behind, some complete with their cardboard carrying case. Someone made the effort to carry that weight down miles of beach, but couldn't be bothered to carry the light aluminum back to a recycling center or trash can.

These are the same people that grab me and ask why I'm not spending my day, everyday, cleaning the beach as I navigate through the park in my uniform. As one of a small group of biologists trying to protect the many endangered species in our park, monitor shore lines and turtle nests, and further our understanding of the on-going hurricane recovery here, I really don't have time. I do clean as much as I can, but only when en-route to addressing my priorities that day. I regret to admit that it makes me angry -- I work hard to protect these beaches for everyone, and I'm not a human trash can. I especially like it when someone approaches me with their empty water bottle, not even bothering to say hello, just holding it out for me to take from them and dispose of. How did we get so rude and presumptuous?

Ok, that's my rant for the day. Now I have to find a truck big enough to haul all those beer bottles to a recycling center. I wanted to take just one of them, write a message, and send it out to sea, hoping someone, somewhere would read the message and learn to love and respect the sea around us as much as I do.

07 September 2007

Little Loggerheads on Pensacola Beach

At work last night, I was fortunate to witness a sea turtle nest hatch. This year, we've had the least number of sea turtle nests ever, so the experience has become even more rare. It may be buggy, sometimes wet, often muggy and at times, even a bit chilly, but seeing the little turtles exploding with energy and life makes you forget all of that as you're lost in the magic of the moment. I wish I could share the event with more people -- everyone falls in love with sea turtles when they see them! Then, like me, they see the value in protecting the sea, the beach, the rivers and streams. Sea turtles are charismatic megafauna that can teach us to first love, then protect, and in time, understand, the ever-changing world around us.

I sit alone on the beach, bowing my head towards the ground, as the cool damp breeze blows through me. I try to focus, listening to the night sounds. Sea oats rub against each other as their slender young blades carve wind-driven circles in the sand. The relentless crash, splash, swoosh of waves washing ashore soothes my jangled nerves. Rain drops splatter on my face, keeping me from sleeping as I strain to hear the one noise I am searching for - the shushing, scratching sound of tiny flippers deep in the sand.

The sound rises like the rush of an underground stream, thirty seconds worth of frenzied activity as dozens of hatchling sea turtles try to swim their way out of the nest. Tired, the hatchlings pause as a group, and the busy silence of night continues. A gull cries overhead, searching for his next meal. The incessant buzz of mozzies drives me to distraction. I feel a twinge of guilt each time I swat one that's landed on my exposed arms and legs. A distinct scuttle of feet betrays the presence of a ghost crab, stealing his way towards the intermittent noise of the nest in an attempt to capture a hatchling for himself. This, at least, I can prevent - the ghost crab will not snack on sea turtle tonight.

After chasing the crab, I return to listen to the nest, staring up at the cloudy sky, wishing the rain away. A sliver of moon peaks out from a break in the clouds, bathing the beach in a blue white glow. This is the light the hatchlings will seek when they finally emerge, though it may not happen tonight. It can take several days to escape their sandy nursery as they swim towards the air, the beach and the sea. That's the only thing they know - swimming - there is no parent to teach them otherwise. They will swim in their dry sea, pushing grains of sand out of the way, allowing them to settle beneath them. As they struggle underground, the displaced sand slowly raises the floor of their nest until the first hatchling's head nears the surface.

Just before 2 AM, a small hollow forms, as if a child has reached in and grabbed a handful of sand. At first, I'm not sure it's really the nest caving in - it could be the rain creating a pit in the porous ground, or my eyes, poorly adjusted to the dark night, playing tricks on me. I walk away for a minute, clear my head, and walk back. Small, irregular, dark patches appear within the hollow - I know that's a hatchling! The scout, the first to raise his head to the night air, stops for several minutes. Is he listening for predators? Smelling the salty tang of the sea? Checking for sunlight? It's hard to know. Whether he's resting or searching, he soon resumes his effort to free himself from the sandy playpen and wriggles onto the beach. His brothers and sisters boil out of the nest after him, shaking the damp sand off their backs in a flurry of flippers as they rush towards... whoops, not the sea, but the hotels on the beach.

This is why I'm here. Sea turtle hatchlings sometimes crawl towards bright lights on the beach, mistaking them for a more natural horizon. If the moon were not hidden behind a cloud, perhaps they would make a mad dash towards the sea, illuminated with moon and star shine, instead of the Hilton. There's no time to think about that though as I scramble to gather 75 silver dollar sized sea turtles before they escape in a dozen different directions on this dark night.

With a cooler full of babies, I head towards the sea, talking to them all the way. If they were not so disoriented by the lights, I would allow them to crawl the distance themselves, but I have to ensure as many as possible make it safely to the sea. I tell them this, and I tell them what to watch out for. Swim away from sharks and big fish, like tuna and marlin. Take a quick breath and dive deep when you hear a sea gull. Watch out for boats and men - they don't mean to hurt you, but sometimes, the propellers on their boats will cut you, and their fish hooks will snag you. I tell them to swim fast and far, out to the currents that will carry them to the Gulf Stream. They can hang out on the edges, finding good feeding and good cover in rafts of sargassum. There, they can grow larger than most of their predators. They can learn to swim well. In a few years, they can come back to feeding grounds close to shore; in twenty or thirty years, the females among them can come back to nest. There's a lot to try to teach a sea turtle hatchling. I know they don't understand I thing I say, but I feel compelled to say it anyway.

When I reach the water's edge, it's time to say goodbye. I lift hatchlings from the cooler, checking for signs of illness and injury, and feel the powerful pull of leathery flippers against my fingers. Like little wind-up toys, the turtles keep swimming frantically, even in the palm of my hand. The obvious strength in their tiny limbs will propel the hatchlings through the waves, into the reaches of the deep blue sea beyond. Their survival instinct seems immense.

As I place each one on the sand, gently redirecting the confused ones to face the sea, I say a blessing over them. Centuries ago, Columbus wrote in his journals that it appeared as if you could walk across this sea on the backs of sea turtles. Now there are so few that they are in danger of extinction. I wonder what the sea looked like then. I wonder how the turtles have survived so much change. I wish I knew how to help these 75 survive. In my mind, I know it is unlikely that any of them will, but I choose to close my heart to this; I choose to ignore the thought of hungry sharks swimming along the beach, and sea gulls skimming the water. I choose hope, as I watch these babies like a nervous mother, wishing only the best for these small creatures as I send them towards their watery destiny.

International Coastal Clean-Up!

The 2008 Coastal Clean-Up on Santa Rosa Island was a great success, but we can work together to make everyday a Coastal Clean-up Day... Help us keep our beaches beautiful!

For details on the 2009 coastal clean-up efforts in Pensacola or in your area, or other ways you can help, click here.

Hello World!

Hello World!
Which way to the sea?