By Tim O’Meilia
Officially, she’s female leatherback turtle UUN669. That’s what the tag on a back flipper reads.
But everyone calls her Kate.
She’s the one still on the beach at mid-morning, scraping around in the hot sun, her flippers trying to clear a spot to lay her eggs.
On May 31, Kate was spotted across from the Boca Highlands, at the Boca Raton-Highland Beach line. The day before that, she was in Ocean Ridge. Before that, she was in Palm Beach.
Late in April and early in May, she trundled ashore in Juno Beach.
That’s not unusual. Leatherbacks often make three to five trips ashore in a season to make nests and lay their eggs, said Kelly Martin, a biologist with the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach.
Sea turtles usually come ashore at night, deposit their eggs and waddle back into the surf by dawn. All within a couple of hours. Not Kate. She’s out there well into the day, attracting a crowd and becoming something of a celebrity.
“She’s always on the beach after daylight,” Martin said. “You don’t really see turtles coming out in the daytime. Quite a few people know her now. ”
Photos by Staci-lee Sherwood and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Turtle monitor Chris Perretta and Robin Trindell, who heads the sea turtle management program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, were among those who tended to Kate in Ocean Ridge.
“We were just observing her and she was looking like she was doing things turtles do to lay their eggs, trying to kick away the sand,” Trindell said.
After it was clear that wasn’t working, Trindell and Perretta crept up behind the 800-pound turtle and helped dig a chamber. But eventually Kate crawled back out to the ocean without making a deposit.
“She could have been struck by a boat previously and sustained an injury or perhaps she has some genetic anomaly that causes the difficulty in nesting,” Perretta said. “It is pure speculation either way and may remain one of nature’s little mysteries.”
The next day, monitors for the Highland Beach Sea Turtle Program spotted a tagged leatherback on the beach after daylight. After learning it was Kate, Staci-lee Sherwood and volunteers from the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center followed instructions from the Marinelife Center biologists and dug a chamber for the turtle.
Eventually Kate laid her eggs.
“She was so exhausted, we had to help her back into the water,” said Kirt Rusenko, marine conservationist at Gumbo Limbo. They used a blue tarp from the Marinelife Center. “She had been out of the water for more than seven hours,” Rusenko said.
The leatherback nesting season is winding down, although loggerheads and other species are still laying eggs, and Kate is likely finished with her motherly chores.
Workers at the Marinelife Center had previously helped her make egg chambers this year to successfully lay eggs.
She was first tagged last year in Juno Beach, which was probably her first year of nesting, Martin said. She was named for the young daughter of the center’s board of directors, who joined the monitoring team the morning Kate was found.
The center gives unscientific but human names to many of their tagged and all their rehabilitated turtles. The center has been tagging leatherbacks since 2001 in an ongoing project to study the mating, nesting and migratory habits of the leatherbacks.
Turtle monitors have seen 148 different tagged leatherbacks in the Juno area this spring. Those turtles have made 360 or so trips to the beach, the third highest number since the project began.
Gumbo Limbo has counted 32 leatherback nests so far this season. They are always far fewer than loggerhead turtles on South County beaches. Based on leatherback behavior, it may be a year or two before Kate returns to Palm Beach County.
Her first batch of eggs laid in Juno Beach hatched June 27 and dozens of hatchlings were last seen scurrying for the ocean.
The Boca nest won’t hatch for another month.