The amazing sea turtle rescue

Finding an endangered sea turtle tail-up with its head buried in a sandy pit, perhaps dead, is a rough way to start a beautiful Florida morning.

But for Johndra Culp and Richard Fowlkes, a couple of Atlanta expatriates, their advocacy for the gigantic sea creatures means not just digging the turtles but, in this case, actually digging them out.

Culp, a marketing consultant who moved to the Panhandle coast from Atlanta nine years ago, often patrols the sugar-sand beaches at sunrise, seeking signs of sea turtle nests.

For eons, the slow-moving behemoths have dragged themselves onto the beach to dig holes and lay eggs. That system worked well until fishing gear, nets, speed boats, hotels, condos, beach chairs and curious tourists decimated them.

So, Culp and like-minded volunteers started signing up to walk the beach at daylight in search of the distinctive track in the sand where a turtle has crawled up to lay eggs. Then the patrol secures the nest — often with four wooden posts and what looks like yellow crime-scene tape — and waits two months until the babies hatch and make a desperate break for the water.

Last week, Culp, 51, saw a turtle’s drag path, followed it — a short U-turn — and saw a loggerhead facedown in a hole just big enough to engulf the 300-pound creature. Culp’s heart pounded. Usually she just sees skid marks, but here was the whole thing — not just any sea turtle, but an endangered loggerhead — a mature creature that can live 65 years.

She dug around the shell to see which end was up. Poor thing, she saw: the head was buried 18 inches in the fine white sand. The turtle was almost certainly dead.

She called Richard Fowlkes, a retiree also from Atlanta, who helps manage several walking routes for the South Walton Turtle Watch.

“I don’t think she’s alive,” she told Fowlkes. Then suddenly, there was a twitch. “It moved a flipper! Oh my God, she’s alive!”

Fowlkes asked her to continue walking her rounds — there might be more nests to report, and the work crews waiting to set up chairs and umbrellas are eager to get their operations going each day.

Fowlkes, a former AJC photographer, was already out looking at another beach, so he hustled over.

Fowlkes has been doing this since 2000 when he moved to the Gulf of Mexico between Destin and Panama City.

Both Fowlkes and Culp said the area has become wildly popular with new residents and visitors. It seems not a day goes by when they don’t run into someone visiting from Atlanta.

The turtles lay their eggs in May or June and then, two months later, the youngsters emerge to make their dash to the sea. Here and at nearly all Southern beaches, process coincides with high season for tourism: the beaches are packed.

Fowlkes wasn’t hopeful. He came upon “a headless body in the sand with its tail sitting up.” Usually big turtles on land after sunrise are dead or dying. That, he added, “can be a real bummer.”

Looking at the drag marks, it was clear the loggerhead didn’t lay eggs and was somehow spooked, causing her to turn tail and try to slog back to the sea.

In her way, however, was a nice-sized hole dug by some fun-loving family that failed to fill it in before leaving. The beast ker-thumped nose first into the hole, freaked out and kept plowing ahead, because loggerheads are not equipped with a reverse gear. The more panicked she got, the worse she dug herself in.

The physics involved in extracting a 39-by-36-inch, 300-pound turtle from a large sandy pit are daunting. Fowlkes tried to lift the shell but it was like pulling a fireplug from the ground. He started digging around the head but was careful not to dig too fast or too close

A runner happened along. He drafted her. And then another. They again tried to yank the turtle from the hole. Again, nothing. Maybe 2 or 3 inches up and then thud!

Ultimately five or six Good Samaritans churned sand with their hands, exposing the head and nostrils. Amazed, Fowlkes found she was still alive. But barely.

Soon, several more passersby, turtle watch folks and even the sheriff’s office arrived. Finally, a big guy from the group named Joe Burton showed up. They grabbed the turtle on either side while a jogger cupped the fragile head. One, two, three!

They yanked hard enough to get the creature’s chest on the lip of the hole as other rescuers scooped away to build a ramp to safety. The turtle would now lift her head, and Fowlkes dumped handfuls of water on her, each one seeming to bring back a semblance of life. A man produced a bucket and Fowlkes began dumping buckets of water over the stranded beast. A few buckets later, the turtle regained enough energy to make it to the incoming waves.

Culp rushed back from finishing her rounds to find the turtle inching toward home. By now a couple dozen folks had gathered on the beach to help or watch or both.

“They use so much energy on the land struggling to drag themselves along,” she said. “But in the water, it’s effortless, very graceful.”

Thirty yards out the turtle lifted her head.

“I told Richard that she’s letting us know she’s OK.”

The crowd applauded in the early morning sun.

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