A perfect moniker for Barbara Eells would be “Wildlife Whisperer.”
So, it was not really a surprise last week when Ms. Eells, can’t call her anything else, respect, reached out after our story about the leatherback turtle nesting, in the daylight, on St. Joseph Peninsula.
After all, she is has been living daily on our local beaches for decades, particularly those of Gulf and East Bay as leader of the turtle patrol that covers those areas, and has a near photographic memory for the birds and turtles that nest along the local beaches.
And she was happy to tap into that mental encyclopedia about leatherbacks, providing, as Paul Harvey used to announce, the rest of the story.
In doing so, Eells underscored one of the central points made about the Mother’s Day nesting: leatherbacks are incredibly unusual on local beaches.
The year 2001 was something of a milestone, with four leatherback nests, though Eells was under the belief at the time that two turtles had nested twice: the average leatherback female they will lay more than one clutch of eggs in a nesting season.
The nests were found on what is now WindMark Beach, one egg was left on top; St. Joe Beach; Mexico Beach and Tyndall; a tidy little line west or north depending on one’s orientation.
Three of the four were lost to tropical storms that season.
The fourth was saved through pure happenstance.
As many still do, Eells and her neighbors back then watched each Fourth of July from St. Joe Beach as the cities of Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach shot off fireworks.
Eells recalled that Brenda Ward was the last to leave that year, around midnight, from Gulf Aire where she had watched the fireworks.
While walking back home Ward observed a special sight, what turned out to be a leatherback laying eggs.
“I was on duty the next morning and saw where she had dug a hole in her body pit, but the hole was filled with water,” Eells said of the female leatherback.
“She moved up on the beach and laid her clutch. I found the eggs and moved them higher out of the wet sand as they (also) lay in a shallow chamber.”
Those were the sole leatherback eggs to survive from those four nests.
Fast-forward four years and one leatherback nest was found at Bonfire Beach (Tyndall), the eggs were found and relocated.
Three years later, 2008, more than a decade ago, two leatherback nests were found, one along Mexico Beach and the other at Bonfire Beach (Tyndall).
Both were wiped out by Hurricane Barry.
The width of the crawl, or path made by its flippers on the beach, of the one that nested on Mexico Beach was 74 inches, more than twice the normal loggerhead turtle.
Unfortunately, photos of those events have been stored on a computer which Eells can no longer access and can not repair.
There was another episode with a leatherback in the 1990s before WindMark was developed.
A leatherback, making circles at the old Dixie Bell curve, had been sliced by a boat propeller on the top of her back.
Leatherbacks do not have a hard shell or carapace as with loggerhead and green sea turtles.
“You could see her heart beating underneath the bony structure that had been damaged,” Eells said.
Donnie Smith brought his back hoe and lifted the turtle onto a truck for a drive to Gulf World.
But, at the time, Gulf World’s rehab pool was too small for an adult leatherback and the decision was made to go to Mote Marine Lab in Clearwater.
“She died about 30 minutes before they arrived,” Eells said.
To even the casual turtler, Eells noted, the signs of a leatherback on the beach are not hard to miss, even if, as normal, they nest at night.
Crawls are at least six to seven feet wide, sometimes wider.
“This turtle is huge,” Eells said, adding their weight ranges from 800 to more than 1,000 pounds.
Eggs are larger than other sea turtles, about the size of billiard balls and, as would stand to reason, the hatchlings are similarly large compared to other sea turtles.
They are also fastidious about camouflaging their nests, making large circles sometimes two or three circles to hide their nest from predators, Eells said.
“The big “poke” to all of us turtlers is a bet of who can find the eggs where,” Eells said. “They are at least 24-30 inches deep from the body pit she makes to lay in.
“Like all laying Mamas, she pats the sand down on top and then covers with her front flippers and then comes the circle, or circles.”
At one of the Tyndall nests some years back, six people were trying to find the eggs in a nest near the waterline.
So, according to the Wildlife Whisperer, while there have been leatherbacks in Gulf County before, the Mother’s Day nest was the third on county beaches to be documented.