Hold it!" cried Evans, throwing his clipboard down and joining the others
in trying to steady an encased turtle so a reading could be made from the
scale. But the net broke loose and swung around like a drunken punching bag,
knocking Adkins to the deck. He scrambled to his feet and subdued it. Brown
hollered above the wind, "Weight 125 pounds. Let that thing down!" The
turtle was gently lowered to the deck and dragged out of the way. "O.K.,
bring the next one," Brown yelled.
By the time they
were finished, it was almost time for the net to come up with another bunch of
turtles to be catalogued.
wearily on the tail end of a large overturned female, resting his head in his
hands, watching the blazing lights of the tracking ship as it bore down on the
Buffkin was at
the wheel looking grim. "I'm fixing to get out of the channel," he
declared, watching the 400-foot military vessel. As the haze-gray ship passed
in the night, bristling with antennae, cranes and a huge radar saucer, sailors
looked down at us from three levels of lighted staterooms. The Loran plotter
that the Corps of Engineers had installed aboard the trawler to precisely
record where the turtles were taken drew out a diagram of the Miss Natalie's,
jog outside the buoys. Buffkin breathed a sigh of relief when the tracking ship
had passed. "I'd hate to catch him in my net and put him on deck," he
night, squeaking, groaning machinery repeatedly hoisted up the bulging net.
Time after time Adkins snatched the release ropes of the gyrating bag to send
more large loggerheads tumbling onto the deck, along with avalanches of trash
fish, flounder, crabs and shrimp. The turtles lay there, relics of the dinosaur
age, forlornly waving yellow flippers. The deck lights gleamed off their belly
shells, which expanded as they filled their lungs with air.
bulldozers, those turtles that landed upright plowed their way through the
piles of grunting croakers onto the paint-worn deck. The measuring and tagging
went on and on. After six tows there was no place to step. The deck had become
a mosaic of turtles. Finally, Evans said, "O.K., that's enough for one
night. It's getting too rough to work."
It was time to
set the tagged turtles free. With the nets aboard, the Miss Natalie surged
forward past the blinking sea buoys. She plowed through the waves as if she
were delighted to be free of the burdensome yoke.
As we headed five
miles down the coast, riding the swells, inspection of the turtles revealed
some with flippers bitten off or chunks of their shells gouged out, evidence of
shark attacks. Brown pointed to a tarnished tag on a badly chewed small female.
"This is an old friend, probably the third time I've personally caught
her," he said. "Approximately 20% of the turtles we haul off and
release turn right around and come back to the channel. We get some bad looking
turtles here. They get chopped up by boat propellers, some of them look like
the pirates attacked, but they're really tough."
Buffkin and other
shrimpers believe that loggerheads flock to the Canaveral Channel to hide from
sharks in the smelly mud while they heal up from bites and wounds, or to rid
themselves of barnacles. All the turtles, even the injured or mutilated ones,
that came aboard this night weren't ill or undernourished, but sickly,
emaciated specimens had been caught on other occasions. Those who want to
hasten the maintenance dredging at any cost claim that the channel has become a
turtle boneyard, that loggerheads go there to die and it doesn't matter that
they're ground to turtleburger in the dredge pumps.
But healthy or
sick, large or small, there almost seemed to be a waiting list to get into the
channel. As fast as Buffkin trawled the turtles up and hauled them away, new
ones moved in. Why? It was a puzzle worth pondering.