Shell Game

Bill Ahern and his fellow turtle rangers are helping keep endangered crawlers from extinction

By now the pastel-streaked sky has turned a brilliant blue. Ahern seems to know everyone he drives past. A portly woman jogging in a sweat suit has "lost so much weight since she started coming out here," he comments. He greets more joggers, sanitation workers collecting seaweed and garbage, and "old George," an elderly man walking in the distance. "I see him every morning," Ahern says. "He moved here from New York in 1980. Bad back. His doctors told him to go to a warmer climate or his joints would freeze." George shakes his head. The ranger explains that George looks for nests on his daily walks, and that he indicates the number he has spotted by showing a corresponding number of fingers. Nothing today, though.

After passing through the nudist stretch of Haulover Beach without missing a beat, Ahern starts wondering whether he'll discover any eggs. There are days, plenty of them, when he doesn't find anything. Can he ever gauge the likelihood of finding a nest on a given day? "You can't predict that," he says. "It could be dark, damp, dry, high tide, low tide, it doesn't matter. The turtle's internal clock tells her when the time is right. We just got to ride the range."

And that's when it happens. As he's leaving Haulover, Ahern stops by a foot-high mound. Two wide, squiggly sets of tracks lead toward the surf about 30 feet away. Ahern grabs a green bucket from the back of the truck. After studying the patterns in the sand, he determines that a loggerhead weighing between 400 and 500 pounds passed this way. He bends low to the ground and follows the trail. Ahern lumbers from one flipper-print to the next, mimicking the loggerhead, to illustrate its path from the ocean to the nest and back.

Then Ahern stands next to the neatly formed heap, circling his hand over it. "Somewhere in there are the eggs," he says. He picks a spot on the large mound, which is about three feet wide, and crouches. He begins scooping large handfuls of sand. When he's penetrated about two feet, he springs up: "Look right there!" It's a bundle of white eggs resembling Ping-Pong balls. He kneels over the mound and flaps his arms sideways to show how the loggerhead dug the nest and then filled it. "I look like a turtle, don't I?" Ahern asks, grinning.

He reaches into the nest, carefully pulling out two eggs at a time and placing them in the bucket. When he reaches 50, he holds one of the perfectly spherical eggs to the sun. It's flecked with damp patches of red, brown, and black sand. The light shining through the shell reveals the yolk. Ahern gently presses it, creating a dent. "Turtle eggs are kind of soft like this," he says. He repeats the experiment on the other side, and the original dent pops out.

As he's finishing, a woman dressed in a black coverup walks over to Ahern. A small white dog with shaggy fur follows her. Donna Tarsitano, who lives in the nearby Oceania condominium, removes her sunglasses and gasps. "You just found those eggs?" she marvels. "Right here by my building? Unbelievable!" Tarsitano, a regular on the beach, had never seen a nest before.

Ahern says that most beachgoers react with similar enthusiasm. "They go ape-shit," he says. "Everybody finds this absolutely fascinating, whether they're 5 years old or 105." Recently a poet named Lilly discovered him filling his bucket with eggs. She called the nest a "bouquet of beauty," speculated that the mother must have been "gargantuan," and gave Ahern an autographed copy of her latest book.

Ahern finishes counting. He has gathered 114 eggs. About average. After returning to his truck, he scribbles the count, along with some notes about the size and location of the nest, in a small black logbook. That's the only time Ahern opens his log all morning, but he considers it a good run. "I always get a charge from knowing that it's like taking a little slice of the past," he says. "These same turtles and nests were here millions of years ago. I never get tired of that."

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