The 'Turtle Dude' Quits in Ugly Fight Over Saving SoBe's Endangered Sea Turtles

Think about the sheer shitty luck to be a sea turtle egg laid on South Beach. Drunks and party girls stumble over you and the neon lights of Ocean Drive lure you to sure death.

"Hundreds, just hundreds of baby turtles die out here," says Cliff Buchanan, a trim, 40-something freelance photographer.

Buchanan cared so much that for the last two hatching seasons he's spent every night camped on the beach protecting nests of three endangered species of turtles. The staid New York Times even wrote about "The Turtle Dude" last September.

But now Buchanan has thrown in the towel, and the accusations are flying.

The Turtle Dude blames reckless cops and a useless city bureaucracy for killing turtles; other activists say that the Dude went too far, scaring tourists by wielding a knife and threatening officials.

"Cliff's heart is in the right place," says Selina Mills, who runs Miami-Dade Parks' Sea Turtle Nesting and Relocation Program with her husband. "But he's an angry guy with some serious issues."

Two years ago, Buchanan started volunteering for Mills and her husband, Bill Ahern. For the first year Buchanan was an ideal helper. The only problem was that he insisted on spending the night with the eggs, which Mills thought unsafe.

Buchanan says he routinely saw robberies and muggings on the dark beach. Once, he was roughed up near a lifeguard stand.

But rather than scale back, he loaded up. Last year, the Turtle Dude started arming himself with a long hunting knife. Eventually, he got a concealed carry permit and a gun.

Mills says that police were constantly calling her, complaining about Buchanan's nighttime antics.

Buchanan begs to differ: "I prevented so many crimes by being on the beach."

What's more, Buchanan became frustrated with the Beach's slow efforts to protect turtles. A recent law limits lights during hatching season, but much of South Beach is still glaringly bright.

Lisa Botero, Miami Beach's environmental manager, says Buchanan once stormed in with an empty bucket, "screaming about how it could be filled with dead turtles and that it was all my fault."

Buchanan admits he passionately pleaded his case, but says he never threatened anyone.

Either way, now the Turtle Dude is done.

"They'll keep talking and talking about protecting them," he says. "I just tried to get something done."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink