One morning last March, Ben Hicks woke up early, grabbed his camera and set out for the beach. Not long after getting in the water he spotted a juvenile green turtle, one of three species of sea turtle found in South Florida, and the two floated together with the current for a bit, Hicks snapping photos while the animal foraged.
Hicks is a South Florida-based wildlife photographer with an Instagram following of more than 74,000. One of his specialties is the sea turtle. His portraits of the animals are stunningly intimate.
Some are unintentionally hilarious, like when he snaps a turtle coming up for air with a gulping expression. Other photos—say, a flailing newborn flipped over on its back—will just completely level you.
Everything was going fine with the green turtle that morning until Hicks saw an unexpected guest creep into his periphery: a plastic bag was drifting between him and the animal. It looked, as plastic bags almost always do when submerged in water, like a jellyfish. To a hungry green turtle, that’s a convenient snack.
The turtle made a beeline for the bag. Hicks lifted his camera to capture the moment. Thankfully, he had just enough time to snatch the bag from the disappointed reptile before it became a lethal breakfast.
Two weeks later he posted that photo on Facebook and it took off: 1,500 shares and an army of little red angry faces. The BBC and others reached out to see if they could use it. “I kind of knew this would be a big thing we could share with the world to really make people think,” Hicks says. “But I didn’t really know it would go so far so quickly.”
The photo itself is an almost too-perfect emblem for the current state of the sea turtle. These animals, nearly 150 million years old and agreed to be delicious by a legion of carnivores, have never had it easy. Theirs is a life filled with more gut-punching life-or-death moments than a high-budget Dwayne Johnson flick. But lately, humans regularly hurl previously unseen threats at their shells. From ocean pollution to global warming to the bright artificial lights that disorient new hatchlings, things aren’t exactly getting easier.
South Florida is a critical habitat for the sea turtle, and the animals have managed to attract more human allies than many endangered and threatened species can ever hope to. Still, times are tough. And they will need more than just a little help from their land-dwelling friends if they want to make it another 100 million years.
Tough To Be a Turtle
There is one big problem facing the sea turtle: pollution.
Oh, and also beachfront development and the not-safe-for-turtles lighting it brings. That’s a big one, too. So two-and-a-half? And wait! Climate change! So, fine, there are three-ish big problems facing the sea turtle.
Unless you count illegal poaching. Then there are four. And if you’re going to count poaching, you might as well count longline fishing bycatch. So…five? But now it seems unfair to not lump in boat strikes, and last December one got tangled up in a floating bundle of cocaine in the eastern Pacific but maybe we can count that as pollution? Wait—are we including hurricanes? What about hungry sharks? You get the picture. To put it mildly, you know you’ve got it tough when sharks are an afterthought.
So if nothing else, the turtle deserves respect. Because despite it all, they keep coming back. Thousands of them. Slow, crawling, undeterred, resolute, turtle-ish.
Between the months of March and September, the leatherback (our rarest), green (our second-rarest) and loggerhead (our most common) sea turtles return to South Florida’s beaches, the very beaches where they hatched, to continue the cycle of life. While Fort Lauderdale is sleeping, these animals crawl onto the beach, dig deep holes and drop anywhere from 80 to 120 eggs into the sand before burying the whole thing and slumping back into the Atlantic.
Few have had as frequent a front row seat to this process as Joe Cytacki, the vice president of programs, life sciences, and exhibits at the Museum of Discovery and Science. He helps lead the museum’s popular sea turtle walks. During June and July — peak loggerhead nesting season — Cytacki and company take groups of around 40 to Fort Lauderdale Beach at night and try to find a nesting loggerhead to observe (it’s the only species they’re permitted to watch). They have about an 80 percent success rate, 90 in a good season. The process can be exhaustive, physically and mentally. It’s a lot of waiting around and then…there she is, this 300-pound bump inching closer and closer. As she lays her eggs, she’s aware of the crowd gathering around her. But she keeps going anyway. Her instinct is that strong.
“Someone cries almost every time,” Cytacki says. “And then the turtles, they cry too. Some people say, well, they’re crying because they are never going to see their babies again. Scientists will tell you they’re regulating the salt in their body.”
Either way, the emotional climax of these turtle walks is explosive. Tears all around. Pure awe. When the mothers finally slide back into the water, the crowd, at a loss for what else to do, often breaks out into grateful applause. Inevitably Cytacki finds himself swarmed with dozens of born-again turtle advocates. “Once we start walking back, everybody has a million questions all of a sudden.” Guests tend to immediately transform into vigilante conservationists, securing a perimeter around the nest with outstretched arms to ensure no unsuspecting tourists disturb the eggs.
It doesn’t always go so smoothly. There are false crawls, a phenomenon where the mothers come ashore only to return to the water without nesting. There were 4,340 total documented false crawls in 2017, down slightly from the previous year but still concerningly high. Any number of factors can cause a false crawl: sand that’s not ideal for digging due to unusually hot and dry temperatures, noise and lights, debris on the beach. Cytracki has watched turtles plow through beach chairs and one time they were there till 4 a.m. trying to pry free a loggerhead that had crawled under some beach decking.
But, more often than not, Cytracki’s nights end in magic.
The hard part, though, is just beginning. The mother turtle might be done but when she leaves, it’s humans’ turn to ensure those eggs stay safe. Enter Derek Burkholder and Nova Southeastern University. Burkholder, a research scientist at NSU, and his team of 35 are contracted by Broward County to patrol 24 miles of beach every single morning during nesting season. Astride ATVs, they search for the unmistakable crawl marks of mother turtles. Once a nest is found, it’s marked off and monitored tightly until hatching.
Last year, the NSU team documented 3,587 nests, a record high in the program’s 28 years. It was a solid year for loggerheads and a record year for green turtles with 170 nests. The hulking 2,000-pound leatherbacks (the biggest sea turtle on the planet) were lagging below their five-year average though. The record numbers are likely related to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and a few other pieces of pro-sea turtle legislation that passed around that time. The hatchlings that benefited from those laws are finally starting to mature and reproduce.
A lot can go wrong during the roughly two months it takes the eggs to incubate. Poaching is an unfortunate reality. Florida Fish and Wildlife estimates thousands of eggs are dug up each year and sold illegally. They are part of some Caribbean and South American diets. There were multiple arrests for egg poaching in South Florida last year and Cytacki says he’s witnessed people digging them up on more than one occasion. Legend has it, Fort Lauderdale beach bars used to sell them back in the day as an aphrodisiac. A Knight-Ridder News Service clip from 1995 quotes a Palm Beach poacher admitting “We sell it to local bars, and they put it in drinks.”
An even more pressing threat lately has been temperatures. Scorching hot summers have a big impact on the incubation process and July 2016 was the sixth-hottest July in Fort Lauderdale history. “Last year, in some of our areas we’d have around 60 percent of the eggs hatch and the rest of them would be almost cooked in the nest,” Burkholder says. Another problem is that sea turtles are among the reptiles that experience temperature-dependent sex determination; incubation temperature, rather than chromosomes, determines whether turtles are male or female. Higher temperatures produce females and cooler ones will hatch males. Genders normally balance out naturally, but climate change complicates things. FAU biological sciences professor Jeanette Wyneken lead a recent study that attempted to find out just how badly the nests were being affected by the extreme summer weather and the answer was not good. In her study, published in Endangered Species Research, Wyneken collected sample turtles from nests in Boca Raton from 2010 to 2013. Not one hatchling in her study was male from 2010 to 2012. In 2013, she detected male samples in only four nests during the early part of nesting season. The rest of 2013’s samples found five nests with 100 percent females and one with 90 percent females. A gender imbalance so severe could obviously spell doom 30 years down the road, when it comes time for these turtles to find a mate.
“Eventually,” Burkholder says, “those numbers don’t work anymore.”
Humans: Friend and Enemy
The sand begins to shake and then, a head. And another. And another. And soon it’s chaos. Dozens of baby sea turtles no bigger than a chocolate chip cookie crawl over each other in a boil of frantic flippers. They are literally born crawling for their lives. Survival is the first and only priority. All of them will fight to live; most will die, some before they even reach the waves.
The hatchlings aren’t just crawling blindly out of the nest. They head towards the brightest spot on the horizon. And for about 99.9 percent of their species’ existence, that’s been the moon and stars twinkling off the water. That’s no longer the case in a vast majority of Fort Lauderdale, and you only need to drive down the busy bits of A1A to see the problem. Stand on the beach and look west. Any glaring light you can see—a lamp in a hotel room, a glowing beach bar or neon-lit liquor store—is enough to send a sea turtle in the wrong direction. In fact, it’s enough to send a lot of them in the wrong direction.
Disoriented baby turtles are common during hatching season, says Richard WhiteCloud, the founding director of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection. STOP is the largest of three volunteer groups in Broward permitted by Florida Fish and Wildlife to actively intervene in the hatching of sea turtle nests. “Last year, our disorientation percentage was 56 percent and we monitored around a thousand nests,” he says.
WhiteCloud and his team of 144 volunteers do their best to pick up any turtle crawling towards certain death: storm drains, cars, exhaustion. He says they’ve saved more than 180,000 sea turtles since 2007. Their results are inarguable, though for WhiteCloud, not ideal. The effort is a Band-Aid on a much larger wound.
Asked to list some chronic offenders, Doug Young sighs. “There are too many to mention,” says the COO of the South Florida Audubon Society, which also patrols Broward’s beaches to help combat hatchling disorientation. Young has been doing this for 20 years, and he’s seen perfect hatch-outs, where every turtle heads towards the water. He’s also seen the complete opposite, where not one animal crawls in the right direction.
Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act provides guidelines for lighting ordinances. But it gets complicated because each South Florida beachfront municipality has its own codes and ordinances to abide by when it comes to night-healthy lighting. The City of Fort Lauderdale’s system, according to both WhiteCloud and Young, is particularly ineffective and impotent. The city has spent several million dollars retrofitting A1A streetlights to be more turtle-friendly. The problem lies more in enforcement of rules aimed at the many brightly lit businesses overlooking the beach. Young and WhiteCloud argue that, though properties in violation of lighting code could be fined, practically none ever are. There is simply no follow-up to businesses that have been reported and WhiteCloud says, to the best of his knowledge, only one property has ever been fined.
“The analogy I can give you is if you go through a stop sign or a red light and get caught and are issued a citation, you have to take care of it. There’s a process to follow up on that, right?” Young says. “Well, that type of process is not in place for a lighting violation.”
Fort Lauderdale community inspections supervisor Dick Eaton did not respond to repeated interview requests and emailed questions from Fort Lauderdale Magazine.
WhiteCloud finds it frustrating because, well, he’s not asking for a lot. And the law is on his side.
Fixing unsafe lighting along the beach is not rocket science. Most lights can be amended by using the proper bulbs or building shades around outdoor fixtures (Florida Fish and Wildlife has a list of suggestions on its website, myfwc.com) and both SFAS and STOP do engage in community outreach to convey this to local businesses.
“We never tell people that they have to turn their lights out,” he says. “We know that everybody has to have lights, so have the right types. There has to be cohabitational respect from living in an environmentally sensitive area for an endangered animal. It’s that simple. That’s all.”
About the Photographer:
Ben Hicks has journeyed across the Americas and ventured to exotic locales to compose a profoundly diverse collection of fine-art photography. Ben aspires to advance the appreciation for nature and raise environmental awareness by depicting the natural world in an endearing and relevant manner including the importance of sea turtle conservation as these magnificent creatures are one of the most important indicators of the health of the world’s marine and coastal ecosystems. For more on his commercial work visit: bocaratonphoto.com.