04 November 2011
TURTLE MOTHER'S CHILDREN.
By Jack Rudloe
Why are people so enamored with sea turtles? Whether it's the
research scientist, or the volunteer on the beach, or someone who buys a sea
turtle license plate in Florida to support sea turtle conservation, why do
they do it? Of all the various license plates, ranging from anti-abortion,
to supporting education and the arts, purchases of sea turtle license plates
leads all others.
There are people who have spent lifetimes doing it, staying up night
after night on mosquito infested beaches hoping to see a turtle come ashore,
not seeing any for weeks, and then working to exhaustion tagging them,
tracking them by satellites, or spending long, tedious hours with
entanglement nets, hoping to catch one to tag and release. In Texas, a 95
year old lady, known as the "turtle mother" who spent lifetime educating
children and rehabilitating ridleys, just passed away. Another took people
diving in the Gulf Stream off Florida to see loggerheads, and gave them all
names until she was eighty-five and had to give it up. A native woman in
Trinidad saved the leatherback population by pushing through laws and
personally driving off poachers. Sally Murphy was burned in effigy
by the shrimpers of South Carolina when she forced them to use TEDS which
made them lose shrimp. Yet another shrimper Slinky Boon, spent years
perfecting nets that saved turtles and kept shrimp. In Mexico turtle
workers still go out on beaches to count nests amidst murderous drug
And there are those who have died while saving sea turtles: a boy swimming a
wounded hawksbill to shore was killed by a tiger shark. A guard was murdered
on a beach in Nicaragua, trying to protect nests from poachers; volunteers
have been beaten savagely on a beach in Greece, because they protested a
condo development there. There are other such stories in wildlife
conservation, but for some reason, sea turtles are more compelling.
Why? I'm not sure, but my wife Anne and I have spent forty years not only
trying to protect sea turtles, but their habitats and their watery world.
When my third book "Time of the Turtle" was published in 1978, we got a
grant from a conservation group, and distributed hundreds of copies to
shrimp boat captains and crews. Some thumbed through the pages asking me
where the recipes were. Others said it made them voluntarily rehabilitate
and release turtles when they caught them.
At times we have practically been covered with tar and feathers by
the local development and growth establishment such as when we tried to get
the state to buy up lands for conservation that they wanted for development.
Whether the battle is land clearing and development, destructive forestry
practices, which impact the marine food chain, building condos on the
beaches, dredging channels through sea grass beds, the fight against
offshore oil drilling sooner or later it boils down to turtles.
Battlegrounds range from beaches to fishing docks, to town hall meetings,
legislators' offices: we introduced a tongue in cheek, "Paver's Bill of
Rights: the coalition to pave Florida from Pensacola to Key West; which
succeeded in killing an unstoppable "private property" rights bill that was
steaming through the Florida legislature. We even had an eye to eye
confrontation with the Governor of Georgia, who demanded that the Corps of
Engineers stop wasting water by dumping it into the Apalachicola River
during droughts. After he boasted about his state's sea turtle protection
program, we told him that by shutting off the water, he would be raising the
salinity in Apalachicola Bay, interrupting the life cycle of blue crabs,
which is the primary food source of Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Thirty years
ago we worked closely with Nathaniel P. Reed, who authored the U.S.
Endangered Species Act when he was Deputy Secretary of Interior under Nixon.
As a result millions of dollars have been dumped into sea turtle research
and conservation. Armies from Mexico to Thailand and the Turtle Islands off
Malaysia now guard the beaches to stop egg harvests.
When I watched loggerheads being butchered at the dock and saw their meat
sold to fish markets in the 1960's, I brought a live flapping Kemp's ridley
into the Florida cabinet meeting, when they were debating to put size limits
on the harvest of green turtles, and stated that none of other sea turtle
species had any protections. This resulted Florida's first sea turtle
protection law being passed, soon to be followed by others that made it
illegal to harvest turtles or their eggs.
Decades later there are still crazy people who spend all night on
beaches without sleep looking for turtles, watching spectacular sunsets and
sunrises while they get covered mosquito bites and risking malaria.
Volunteer armies around the world, wearing their sea turtle t-shirts and
march up and down the beaches to protect these shelled behemoths and their
hatchlings. They don't get their rewards in money , but in how many
turtles they get to tag, or in the number of nests protected. They are
"Turtle Mother's Children", and we hope more people will join their ranks.