Beach Driving and Other Atrocities

sea turtle (loggerhead) hatchling (Photo by P. C. Zick, 2006)
sea turtle (loggerhead) hatchling (Photo by P. C. Zick, 2006)

By Patricia Zick @ P.C. Zick

Today I’m working on my next novel about Florida and its fragile environment. Native Lands begins when Mangrove Mike notices the sound of machines ripping apart his beloved and sacred Everglades. He brings it to the attention of his friend Barbara, who is an environmental columnist for the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, further north in St. Augustine, an environmentalist turned politician uncovers a development that is ripping up wetlands near his home. Through a series of events, the two parties join together to stop the destruction of the natural world they treasure.

One of the environmental issues I address in the novel is beach driving. Unfortunately, too many Florida beaches still allow vehicular traffic on its beaches, although during sea turtle nesting season – May through October – the hours are curtailed so as not to have lights on the beach when sea turtles come ashore to lay nests and when the hatchlings come out of the nest to march to the sea. But the traffic from a typical summer day is intense, and those vehicles leave ruts in the road and disturb the habitat for not only the turtles, but for the nesting shorebirds as well. Many species of both turtles and shorebirds are endangered, which means they are on the brink of extinction. Disturbing the habitat where they engage in reproducing the species can be devastating.

In my novels, I try to educate as I make environmental issues a part of the plot. Here’s a little excerpt from Native Lands where the Booth family of St. Augustine volunteer once a week for sea turtle patrol.

The Booths drove the deserted A1A Highway before 6 a.m. on Saturday. They drove south to Crescent Beach, past rows of condominiums blocking the view of the Atlantic Ocean. When they arrived at the public parking area, a vehicle from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sat alone in the otherwise empty lot. When they pulled in next to the van, Peggy, the biologist in charge of the sea turtle program, climbed out of the driver’s seat and struggled to shut the door on the van against the winds whipping off the ocean.

“It’s churning out there this morning,” Peggy said. “The sand’s blown over the dunes so even if something happened last night we probably wouldn’t be able to see the tracks. We only have a couple of nests so far, but we want to be able to find them once the wind settles down.”

“We might be doing this quite often this year, if the reports about the hurricane season pan out,” Daniel said. “What if we get a hurricane here?”

“We do the same thing. We reinforce the tape and posts around the nests and hope they survive the tides and winds. Then we go out as soon after as possible to make sure the nests can still be found and later to check for hatchlings,” Peggy said. “Let’s hope the predictions are wrong.”

“I heard this morning that we’re feeling the outer bands of Tropical Storm Claudia,” Emily said. “It’s headed straight for the Florida peninsula.”

“It’s so early in the season, I doubt anything will come of it,” Peggy said. “But still this is good practice in case we get something later in the season.”

“Peggy, I got a call from Tim down in the Everglades,” Daniel said. “Seems one of our little crabs managed to wash up on the docks down there.”

“I heard,” Peggy said. “Amazing, isn’t it? OK, let’s get organized for this morning’s walk. It’s probably going to take a little longer than usual because I need all the walkers to make sure the current nests are securely marked.”

The female sea turtle trundles from the sea starting in May continuing through October to lay eggs on Florida’s beaches. However, most of the nesting takes place during the first part of the season. During the later months, the patrols look for signs of the hatchlings emerging from the nests. In the first months of the season, the volunteers look for tracks indicating a sea turtle came ashore to lay eggs the night before.

“I guess we’d better walk slow and closer to the dune line,” Janie said. “Maybe we should spread out more.”

A female sea turtle comes onshore during the night and using her front flippers, pushes aside the sand before using the hind flippers to make a deep hole large enough to deposit 100 to 120 eggs. She then pushes the sand back over the eggs and hightails it back to the sea. She might come ashore several more times during a season to lay a nest during the summer nesting season, but she will never return to the nests already laid.

Instinct brought her to the site of the nesting because most likely at least thirty years earlier that same turtle emerged from a nest in the same approximate location.

When Janie learned about the habits of the loggerhead – the most common of the sea turtles to come up on the beaches of St. Johns County – during her training the year before, she became passionate about keeping the beaches free from danger for these ancient ocean dwellers.

“If the beach is changed in any way, wouldn’t it confuse the mother and cause her to go back to the sea?” Janie asked her father one night soon after they began doing the patrol.

“Yes, that’s why they ask residents to keep the lights off on their houses.”

“And what happens if the female can’t get over the tire tracks to the dunes to lay her eggs?” Janie continued.

“I’m not sure, but I would bet it disrupts the natural order of things,” her father said. “It’s more of a problem for the hatchlings trying to crawl over those ruts to the sea. The longer it takes for them to march to the ocean, the more susceptible they are to predators.”

“What predators?” Janie asked.

“Ghost crabs, dogs not on a leash, and vehicles driving on the sand.”

“I wish they wouldn’t let anyone drive on the beaches,” Janie said. “Can they shut the beaches at least during nesting season for both the turtles and the shore birds? Some of the birds that nest here are endangered species, too.”

“They won’t do it as long as the tourists demand access with their SUVs, but I’m not opposed to helping you fight the battle.” Daniel put his arm around his daughter and smiled.

Emily knew Daniel felt pride in Janie for her willingness to fight for the defenseless sea turtles and birds. Emily felt the same pride. Now in their second year as volunteers, their efforts to close the beaches to cars had been fruitless despite trying to form a group of concerned residents. As the wheels continued tearing up the beaches of St. Johns County, Janie learned how slowly the wheels of government turned.

Florida Novels by P.C. Zick

Florida's sea turtles saved from oil spill in Trails in the Sand
Florida’s sea turtles saved from oil spill in Trails in the Sand
Wild and wacky of small town Florida politics explode in Tortoise Stew.
Wild and wacky of small town Florida politics explode in Tortoise Stew.

4 responses to “Beach Driving and Other Atrocities”

  1. Not kidding, but wish I was. Many counties in Florida still allow folks to take their vehicles out on the sand. It’s deplorable. As one of my friends on Facebook pointed out, it’s also dangerous to humans. I remember being at the beach with a toddler and constantly worrying about her darting into traffic. Sometimes I’ve even spotted oil leaks on the sand. Next I’m going to post about the practice of raking up “beach wrack” to make the beaches more palatable to man’s wish for perfection in the natural world – man’s perfection, not nature’s.


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