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Some scientists believe the lack of current and the sloping contour of the Canaveral Channel draw the turtles in as they migrate along the coast. It's a man-made ditch that runs East-West, and was first cut through the long barrier island to the Banana River in the 1950s. Unlike other channels on the South Atlantic seaboard, which are kept open by rivers flowing out to sea, no current comes from the Banana River into the Canaveral Channel except what the Corps permits to escape through its gates when it locks barge traffic and light shipping in and out of the Banana River Barge Channel. Because there are no currents to keep the channel swept out, it acts as a sediment trap for silt carried down the Florida peninsula by longshore currents. Frequent maintenance dredging has been required to keep the channel open.
Moving along at a tremendous clip was a large ship that was blowing black smoke as it headed down the channel. "Here comes the dredge," said Buffkin, turning the wheel to edge Miss Natalie over to the side of the channel. "He has dumped his load and is coming back for another. We'd better get out of his way, 'cause he's a heap bigger than we are." The ungainly Sugar Island, a sistership of the Long Island that had been working the channel since the start of that month, traveled past at seven knots, throwing an enormous wake that made the rigging on the little Miss Natalie rattle and shake.
"This job ain't as easy as some think," Buffkin said, adjusting the fathometer that inscribed a graph of the channel bottom. "You risk getting run over by tugboats and barges all the time. It's dangerous out here, a lot worse than shrimping. We have to remain in the channel. When we first started, they made us stay right close to the dredge where the bottom was all tore up and full of mud lumps. One time the net mudded down and got caught in the rudder, and we almost went up on the jetties. A time or two when we bogged down in the mud, I thought we were going to get sucked into the drag heads. But now they let us drag up and down the channel, and we catch even more turtles and fewer get killed."
As the dredge disappeared from view, the crew set the 60-foot otter trawl overboard. Brett Adkins, Buffkin's son-in-law, released the brake on the winch, and the two metal doors splashed into the sea, paying out the funnel-shaped net behind them. With its special mud rollers, the trawler scooped up everything in its path as it trailed along 300 feet behind us. Buffkin dragged for only 30 minutes, because a longer period might drown the air-breathing sea turtles caught in the net. Miss Natalie's crew caught only one or two loggerheads per tow on some nights, particularly bright moonlit ones when the turtles could see the trawls coming. But on dark nights, the net often bogged down in loggerheads.
"All right, boys, let's wind her up and catch us some cooters," Buffkin drawled when the alarm clock rang in the wheel-house 30 minutes later.
Paul Brown, an observer for the NMFS, and Larry Evans, a Corps biologist, were on board, and they headed for the back deck. There, two crewmen wearing yellow slicker suits engaged the winch, and the old shrimp boat began vibrating as the drum spun around, reeling in hundreds of feet of steel cable.
The otter doors rose from the dark, starlit sea and crashed together. Brown looked down at the webbing that hung heavily in the black water. "We either got a load of mud—or a load of turtles," he said.
Buffkin hurried back to the stern and inspected his net. "We got 'em this time. We're flat loaded down with turtles!"
The revolving brass cathead groaned and the blocks overhead trembled as the hoisting ropes stretched under the strain. Inch by inch the gorged net was raised out of the sea, showering water on the deck. There, veiled in the webbing, were the yellow skins and barnacle-covered shells of too many loggerheads to count.
There were turtles all the way from the bottom of the net to the very top, which was high above our heads, close hauled to the lifting boom. They looked preposterous: turtles roosting up in a tree.