Turtles the losers as Hurricane Erin spares towns

PHIL DAVISON

Miami

Hundreds of thousands of turtle eggs, mostly from the threatened loggerhead species, may have been destroyed when Hurricane Erin hammered Florida beaches this week with an eight-foot ocean surge.

Like crumpled ping-pong balls, cracked or smashed eggs were scattered across beaches by wind or waves. Torn from their nests, many were attacked by rats, racoons, gulls or crabs. Hundreds of days-old turtles about two inches long, which had started the 20-mile paddle towards the warm Gulf Stream and the sargasso (sea grass) that camouflages them, may also have been swept ashore without the strength to try again, wildlife experts say.

At the best of times, turtles have only a 1 in 10,000 chance of reaching adulthood. Those that survive often live 50 years or more. The females return from the other side of the Atlantic 15 to 20 years later to lay their eggs on the same beach where they were born.

It will be several weeks before experts can assess losses, likely to include some leather-back and rare green turtles, which are officially "endangered" species - more at risk than "threatened".

While news reports focused on how Erin veered from Miami and did little damage to people or property, the hurricane hit the western hemisphere's most important loggerhead nesting beaches.

"It's difficult to say how many we lost," said Dorn Whitmore, who heads a local wildlife refuge for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "Before the hurricane, we had up to 16,000 nests [on a 20-mile stretch, including Vero Beach where the eye of the hurricane passed] with an average 110 eggs in each. After the hurricane, on a stretch in Indian River County where beach erosion was worst and we had maybe 200 nests, 80 per cent of our stakes had been swept away."

The experts mark nests with wooden stakes stating how many eggs are below and which type they are. Ninety per cent of those laid along eastern Florida's beaches are loggerheads, named for their broad heads and strong jaws.

If that one stretch of beach is typical, several hundred thousand eggs may have been lost along the entire 20 miles. But the eggs are remarkably tough. "We came across columns of eggs, like towers of ping-pong balls 10 inches across because they tend to stick to each other, protruding from the sand where their nests had been exposed," Mr Whitmore said. "We buried them again. They'll probably make it."

Before Erin, turtle lovers' main concerns were seafront development and plans to import sand from the Bahamas to offset beach erosion. Cooler sand leads to more male than female turtles being born. Bahamian sand is whiter, stays cooler and could mean too few females.

You don't have to be a turtle lover to know what that means.

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