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Buffkin didn't think there was anything funny about it. He braced himself and tried to grab the ropes that would release the bag. But the rolling Atlantic snatched the lines from his hands as the gorged bag rocked to and fro. All five men in the crew tried to tackle the bag, but with each roll of the sea it would wrench out of their hands and bash into someone. "All right, let it down before the damn thing kills someone," Buffkin shouted to his 17-year-old son, Bobby.
The great webbed sock plopped to the deck with a squish, and the shadowy, bulky forms of turtles and fish looked out from behind the mesh.
Buffkin put a whip line around the lower portion of the net and gave a thumbs-up sign, and once again the machinery strained, lifting up a section of the net. After Adkins violently snatched the release ropes, the bag knot broke loose and loggerheads tumbled out on the deck. There were turtles here and turtles there, beating their flippers with fury and thunder and trying to bite anything within range. Then more hulking turtles came toppling down from above and landed on those already on the deck. Some were caught sideways in the webbing and Buffkin had to shake them down. Soon 12 loggerheads lay on deck.
Buffkin glanced up. "Oh, hell," he muttered, "here comes one of those Air Force tracking ships." Off in the distance was a vessel blazing with lights. "O.K., drop her out," he called as he ran back to the pilothouse. Once again the nets splashed into the sea and the drum spun madly as the cable whipped through the blocks and the Miss Natalie surged ahead.
"All right," Evans said, stepping over a barnacle-encrusted female and trying to keep his balance as the boat pitched and rolled, "let's do this in an organized fashion. Hey!" he called to Bobby, who was dragging turtles out of the way and trying to shovel the trash fish off the deck. "Watch your leg." Bobby glanced down and hastily moved away from a big three-legged male loggerhead, lying on its back with its mouth agape. The jaws, capable of crushing through the armor of whelks and horseshoe crabs, snapped shut, barely missing him.
"So far no one's been bitten," Brown said reassuringly, "and we've had nearly a thousand turtles on the boat. One night one grabbed me by the boot, but all he got was rubber."
The newly arrived loggerheads first had to be tagged, measured, described and weighed. Brown grabbed a turtle by its front and rear flippers and lifted it up. With special heavy pliers, Bobby hastily affixed metal tags through the margins of each of the animal's fore-flippers. Calipers were used to measure the carapace.
Above the moan of the winds and the throb of the diesel, voices called out, "Tag No. AAA146 and AAA147...length 28.5 inches...width 22.4 inches." Then Brown shouted out the description to Evans, who scribbled it down on a clipboard—"Weight 109 pounds—immature—plastron carapace dark—right rear flipper old wound—small hole, left side front position."
The Port Canaveral turtle rescue operation provided an invaluable by-product: scientific information on the movement and behavior of turtles at sea. Until the Miss Natalie went to work, most such data was derived from beach-based tagging studies. In the main, the extent of that knowledge was that sea turtles come ashore, lay their eggs and disappear back into the surf to faithfully return two years later, often to the exact spot, to nest again. Almost nothing was known about males or sub-adults, which never came ashore. Most of the turtles caught by the Miss Natalie were small, averaging less than 100 pounds. Only a few 200- and 300-pounders were hauled aboard. (Logger-heads have been known to weigh as much as 850.)
Getting them on the scales was a job. One by one the angry, hissing, snapping turtles were encased in a webbed sack; Buffkin's crew struggled to lift them up to the hanging scales. All the while the rolling seas lifted the Miss Natalie up and dropped her down.