Shell Game

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

Bill Ahern maneuvers his truck around the sand dunes of the Miami Beach shoreline. He's rolling through North Shore Open Space Park on 79th Street just after 6:00 a.m. The orange sun peeks over the horizon. Shadowy lavenders tinge the columns of clouds. When the still-sleepy 49-year-old looks at the sky, he smiles. Then he starts talking about his childhood dreams.

Since he was six years old, Ahern, born in Memphis and raised in Miami, has wanted to be a cowboy. "I used to watch Roy Rogers on TV, but there isn't much demand for that around here," he sighs, carefully scanning the beach. He stops next to a small mound in the moist sand. It appears the tide has washed out a sandcastle. "Darn," Ahern says. "Just people."

He's searching for evidence of other creatures that are fond of the beach: the massive sea turtles that crawl from the ocean at night to lay eggs. Ahern is a Miami-Dade turtle ranger, one of six in a county program designed to help save the ancient reptile from extinction. He is part environmental conservationist, part beach adventurer, part critter wrangler. And, as it has turned out, he gets to be a cowboy after all. Sort of.

During nesting season, from March to October, the sun-bronzed Ahern and his fellow rangers drive out at dawn to find sea turtle eggs. They dig up as many as 180 at a time and move them to one of three county hatcheries. If hatchlings are allowed to emerge on the beach, they instinctively head for light, which means nearby city streets. They wind up being crushed by cars or dying from exhaustion.

The rangers patrol about sixteen miles of sandy coastline, including Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, and Fisher Island. Besides moving eggs to hatcheries, they rescue stranded and injured turtles and raise public awareness of the animals' plight by speaking to kids at schools and libraries. They also hold hatchling-release presentations at North Shore park.

The largest of Miami Beach's sea turtles is the Loch Ness Monster-looking leatherback, which can grow to eight feet and 2000 pounds. Adult green turtles and loggerheads weigh about 300 pounds and measure three feet. Both leatherbacks and green turtles have long teetered on the brink of extinction, while loggerheads, which account for 90 percent of the nests on county beaches, have been designated as threatened. Developers, hunters, and egg poachers have been major factors in depleting all three species.

The county started its turtle program in 1980, during the early days of beach renourishment in Dade County. As the beaches widened, more turtles arrived. Florida's Atlantic coast is the busiest nesting site in the continental United States.

In its inaugural year, the county turtle program relocated ten nests and 1100 eggs. This past year 333 nests yielded 31,045 eggs. Since the effort started, rangers have moved almost 350,000 eggs. Sand-filled Styrofoam coolers that served as hatcheries have been replaced by 200 feet of beach surrounded by chicken wire. "If we just left the hatchlings out there, about 90 percent of them would die," says Jim Hoover, founder and director of the turtle project. "Our program is having an impact." As a result of the rangers' work, about 80 percent of the young turtles make it to the ocean.

Ahern, one of the most experienced members of the county crew, runs the northern route from 79th Street to Golden Beach. When he invited New Times to ride along recently, the nesting season was nearing its peak. On his way out of North Shore park, Ahern, wearing a white polo shirt, jeans, a baseball cap, and cowboy boots, explained the credo of all good turtle rangers: "There are just two things you have to know to be a ranger: where the turtles go and what they do. You become the turtle."

The first hour is uneventful. One of the few objects that catches Ahern's attention is a lone balloon drifting along the coast. He stops his truck and runs out to pick it up. Litter can create problems for sea turtles, he explains. The reptiles routinely become entangled in fishing line and swallow plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. "If you pick up all the garbage on South Beach by 11:00, it's back by 3:00," he says. "It's a continual nightmare and it shouldn't be."

Early in the run, Ahern explains how he ended up cruising this beach every morning. He applied to the parks department on a whim in 1987. It was a difficult time in his life. His marriage was faltering and he had recently quit his job as a Sears security guard after someone pulled a gun on him. "I didn't want to deal with the negative side of the community anymore," he says. His new job was a good fit from the start. As a child he had often visited North Shore park, which is now turtle-ranger headquarters, to surf and attend family picnics.

Ahern cuts short his reminiscences when he spots two discarded beer bottles by the water's edge. "Before we left [the beach for the day] my grandfather went to everybody and said, 'Pick up your trash or take it home,'" he recalls. "How can they leave trash on the sand?" He takes it personally, because on this beach, Ahern is at home. "I got this job by the grace of God," he says. "I returned to my beach. As the turtles come back, century after century, I've come back, too."

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."

alex_salinas@miaminewtimes.com

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