So, you want to work with sea turtles?

May 7, 2023

The pump shut off with a clang that echoed in the empty gas station, jolting me awake from thoughts of sea turtles I’d seen overnight. At 5 am the city was eerily silent. Street lights illuminated an empty roadway, a single car passed down on US41, its headlights probing the darkness ahead.

Returning the pump, I habitually reached for the hand sanitizer; just another one of those things I wouldn’t have done in previous years, but definitely should have. Rubbing the solution into my still sandy hands I suddenly remembered the newly acquired blister at the base of my thumb and a wave of regret immediately washed across my face. Sucking in through gritted teeth I waited out the shooting pain.

When you work in the office for too long your hands grow soft. The pattering of keyboards and turning of door knobs is hardly reason enough for your hands to grow calluses. There’s just no need for it according to your skin, which, in my opinion suggests a serious lack of foresight, but that’s neither here nor there. When the day comes to do something more physical though, our hands are left ill prepared. The skin wears readily against any tool bigger than a pencil and before you know it, voila, you’re the owner of a brand-new blister! Congratulations.

Blisters can take many forms though and working with sea turtles has a knack for finding new ways to create them, both physically and mentally.

There’s often a very romantic notion behind working with wildlife. And while there’s much to be said about it, that coat of wax can quickly fade if you’re not prepared. Like the excitement of buying something new that fades once you get it. It can sometimes be grander in imagination.

Discomfort, for most of us, is an unfamiliar thing, something we associate with hunger at lunch time or the walk between the office and the car. When working with an animal like a sea turtle, you soon realize that no animal exists in a vacuum and that in reality they don’t live in the world you dreamed of encountering them in. Instead of viewing the nesting turtle from a comfy seat in an air-conditioned room, you’re getting sand thrown in your face while lightning cracks in the distance and mosquitoes threaten to carry you away, only to fail because your clothes are too heavy from the amount of sweat they’ve absorbed. A blister on your palm soon becomes the least of your worries.

Rain over the Gulf of Mexico

When you’re out in the elements your body remembers what it was once like to be exposed with no “other” option. You’re reminded of why we built houses and went through the absurd process of creating tightly woven window screens. There are many beautiful and enriching things about the outdoors, but every fronts’ got a back.

After a few nights, or really just a few minutes, you’ll come to reassess what’s truly important. By the end of the week all you really want is a night without mosquitoes complaining in your ears and a cool, dry room to lay down in.

While at the end of the day you’re able to leave the beach behind and go back to your creature comforts, some of the effects will still linger, fading off in a gradual fashion that goes something like this:

The first hint of relief comes when you turn the throttle on the boat, or as I like to call it “cranking the A/C.” Wind whips through your hair as you leave the bugs in the dust for a brief moment. The actual A/C in the truck when you get back to the dock is nothing short of magical. Within a couple of minutes, you start to feel slightly normal again as the humidity is blasted out of the vehicle and the sweat evaporates off your skin.

By the time you’re about halfway home the adrenaline will begin to wear off and exhaustion starts to take over.

A quick shower removes your “funk” and most of the dead “noseeums” (though trust me, you can “seeum”) that were plastered in salt around your eyes. The bed then calls to you like a siren and you find it through flickering eyes after bumping into the door frame. Laying there between cool sheets with cold air blowing on your face, your body seems to hum with satisfaction. You sleep as heavily as you’ve ever slept in your life, dreams of turtle tracks in the moonlight dancing through your head.

The rest of the effects take a bit longer to fade. For instance, the sand in your teeth will typically go away within a few hours, but every once in a while you’ll randomly crunch down on grains you somehow stored away like a chipmunk in the folds of your cheeks, causing your partner to think you cracked a tooth.

Sand in your eyes is an elusive one. I find myself randomly afflicted with the uncomfortable sensation, often days after being on the beach. Maybe they stick to your eyelashes? Not really sure what to say about that one.

Your hands will be ultra-exfoliated for days afterwards.

The copious amount of bug bites you acquired over the course of the night may not show themselves until a day or so later, but don’t worry…they won’t let you forget about them.

Conservancy staff swatting mosquitoes

The mosquitoes that followed you into your car at the dock will still be waiting for you the next day and sometimes even two days later if you don’t manage to shoo them out the window, or continually miss whacking them against the windshield, succeeding only in creating smudge marks that you won’t clean off for at least a month, and every morning until then you’ll waste windshield wiper fluid trying to clean it before being reminded that it’s on the inside…

When you wake up, you’ll very sincerely answer your phone “good morning” when your boss calls at 3 pm. They’ll laugh and you’ll wonder why until you see the time on the coffee maker as you plead with it to brew faster.

Fully re-acclimating to daily life after multiple shifts of night work seems to take, at the very earliest, two days, but realistically you won’t be your “same old-self” for more like three.

This new reality clashes with the one you’re used to. That’s what discomfort is after all, when what you’ve come to expect runs into a new reality. Comfort then becomes a matter of perspective, and with enough exposure to this new life you adapt.

The human body is an amazing thing and readily adjusts to whatever environment it finds itself in. Your blister will soon heal with the memory of the friction that caused it, strengthened to resist that kind of wear in the future. Muscles will strengthen, mind states will change.

Sun setting over Gulf of Mexico

Stopped at a traffic light on your drive home, adrenaline slowly fading to a low buzz, you’ll look around and think “if only these people knew what I had just been doing.” These moments in the wild are experiences so unlike anything else most us will ever encounter over the course of our lives that it’s hard to understate just how much of an impact they can have on you.

Exposing yourself to those raw elements is a way of reconnecting with the natural world, but also appreciating all that you have, anew. You’ll never be more grateful for air conditioning and walls. You’ll learn to love the wind, what it really means to “bug someone,” and that feeling you get when you finally slide into bed at 7am is worth it all on its own… It’s amazing.

Night image: Loggerhead moving toward the Gulf.
A loggerhead sea turtle heading back into the Gulf of Mexico under a full moon after nesting.

Over the years I’ve found that fieldwork of all kinds is typically defined by hard work and difficult conditions, but punctuated with moments of surreal beauty and ease. There’s a certain kind of peace that comes over you when the conditions are good. When all the sudden you notice there aren’t any mosquitoes buzzing around your head and the cloudless sky above twinkles with so many stars. You’ll look down at a massive loggerhead sea turtle with a skull wider than a basketball. She’s just dragged herself out of the ocean to lay her eggs, potentially within a mile of the place she herself hatched from decades ago. Tiny crabs hide amongst the algae and barnacles covering her back. She’s a part of the ocean, an ecosystem all unto herself. With a massive breath she’ll lay the last egg before covering up and you’ll think to yourself, “this is awesome.”

This article was written by former Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson and was originally posted here.