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Ahead of the Miss Natalie was a submarine headed for the base. "Oh, that's just a little one," said Buffkin sleepily. "The Tridents won't be ready for months." Or, as I'd heard, maybe years. The small nuclear sub, about 300 feet long, had a sinister look about it, like some monstrous black shark, sneaking along the channel, half submerged, with only its conning tower and tail fin protruding from the sea. With the red light on its mast pole blinking like an evil eye through the predawn sky, the sub moved on. One couldn't help wondering if a man-made electronic device was drawing the turtles. Perhaps it was some low-frequency vibration coming from the submarine communications systems or the Kennedy Space Center.
All sea turtles have an amazing ability to migrate long distances and to home in on their nesting beaches with a precision that would be the envy of a Trident submarine navigator. Do they use the earth's magnetic field? The sun? Odors carried by ocean currents? Who knows?
Dr. Joseph Kirschvink of Princeton recently discovered microscopic crystals of magnetite in the brains of hatchling loggerhead and green turtles. Magnetite, the "lodestone" from which ancient compasses were made, is a mineral very sensitive to any change in the electrical or magnetic environment. If these microscopic crystals are embedded in receptor organs that enable turtles to respond to magnetic lines of force surrounding the earth, then man-made disorientation is indeed possible.
Whatever the reason loggerheads have been attracted to the Canaveral Channel, they are likely to keep coming. Buffkin said optimistically, "They're going to have to put a turtle catcher on when they dredge this channel from now on. And I hear they're going to have to do it every year or so. They ought to give me the job. Lord knows, I'm experienced enough."
The Corps of Engineers' turtle-clearing project was deemed a success. By the time the dredge sucked up its last cubic yard of muck on Dec. 4, 1980 and steamed away, the Miss Natalie had caught and relocated 1,249 sea turtles. Fewer than a hundred had been turned into turtle soufflé by the dredge.
With the observers, charter fees, special nets and navigation equipment, the Corps spent more than $350,000 to minimize the damage to a threatened species. Some people complained that it was an outrageous waste of money, but few complained about the $3 million the Corps was spending to dredge the channel and the billions being spent on the Trident submarines, among the most destructive of weapons systems in the world. A matter of priorities.
The engine of the Miss Natalie slowed and Buffkin stepped out on the back deck. "O.K., let's chuck 'em," he said with a yawn. "Another night, another load of cooters."
Happily, Adkins then grabbed a turtle by a fore-flipper and heaved it over the side. Ka-ploosh! Everyone joined in, hurling turtles one right after the other. I stood at the railing, getting splashed, trying to absorb one of the weirdest sights of my life: the heavy-shelled reptiles sailing through the air into the darkness, beating their flippers. For a brief moment they appeared to soar like birds, then they landed like an avalanche of boulders.
When the deck was empty, we headed back to Port Canaveral. Buffkin's gaze picked up the missile-tracking ship moored at the base. "They're going to fire off a missile tomorrow night," he yawned. "That ship will be down range to track it. You ought to hang around and watch the missile go. It's a pretty sight when one lights up the whole sky."
Suddenly, I was struck by the irony of all these ancient sea turtles, which date back 1,975 million years in the fossil records, sleeping in the primordial mud at the foot of the Kennedy Space Center, the base from which man deploys some of his greatest technological devices. All our probes for life elsewhere in the universe are launched from barren concrete slabs on what was once a mangrove swamp, teeming with wading birds and aquatic life. Hordes of these ancient reptiles visited the unspoiled sandy beaches then. But as they lumbered ashore to lay their eggs, thousands were butchered for sale in restaurants, and truckloads of eggs were hauled away to make pound cakes. Now only a relative handful remain.