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The Saga of the Sea Turtles Olaf and Elsa
by Howard Richard Debs

You can’t conserve what you haven’t got
Marjory Stoneman Douglas

One hundred million years ago or more
in times before history was ever written
these ancient mariners navigated mother
earth. A 16th century account about the Florida
explorer Ponce de Leon mentions sea turtles.
Eventually many of their kind were turned into soup
at Granday’s Cannery near the foot of Margaret
Street in the Key West Bight. Before the kraals
and the nets and the pegging with small harpoons,
turtle-turning was the technique of choice. Green,
hawksbill, loggerhead, none of their sisters or
bothers had a chance. This was long before they
were declared endangered. Soon enough the
pleasure boats and the plastic took their toll.
Olaf and Elsa were victims too, but were rescued
by biologists in the winter of 2014. During one of many
visits to Loggerhead Marinelife Center, we found out they
were there and as their grandfather I was very proud of
my then six year old twins for asking what they could do,
so Kady adopted Elsa and Mady adopted Olaf. They
watched over them via the “Turtlecam” most every day.
Finally in spring 2015 the notice came: “Thanks to the care
provided through your support, Olaf and Elsa are ready
to go out in the world again” each now sporting a tag to
transmit their whereabouts via satellite so we and the scientists
could follow along for as much as a year, depending on the battery.
Olaf spent some time in the St. Lucie River, then headed north in the
Intracoastal with its high boat traffic, thankfully exiting by way of
the Fort Pierce Inlet to the Atlantic. He continued to swim northward,
before heading back into the Indian River near the Archie Carr National
Wildlife Refuge. After three months there were no more transmissions.
His antenna tag may have been damaged. We followed Elsa in her travels
far and wide. She began migrating south off the coast of Key Largo
in warm shallow waters. Within less than a month Elsa traveled
357 miles to the Marquesas Keys known as loggerhead foraging
ground, likely in good company. But she left the Keys and entered
the Gulf of Mexico showing up south of Marco Island in water
about 25 feet deep, then she continued to swim west passed
the continental shelf in waters that reach a depth of at least
10,000 feet! Next she headed towards the Texas
coast 280 miles east of Brownsville, deciding to go south
to the Yucatan Peninsula to forage off the coast of
Campeche Mexico, getting food and starting to store up reserves
for a journey to the nesting beaches. Elsa’s tag transmitted for
182 days, recording a total distance traveled of 2,745 miles.
Sea turtles live an average of 50 years and can have similar
lifespans to humans. Our family likes to think Olaf and Elsa now
have families of their own swimming out there somewhere; when
I think about the sea turtles I think about the classic 1970
Earth Day poster framed on a wall in my office as a reminder,
cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famed Pogo character
proclaiming: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

PHOTO: Sea Turtle by Randall Ruiz on Unsplash

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NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Biodiversity is a key barometer for the earth’s condition. As an amateur lepidopterist and long-time member of the North American Butterfly Association I have participated in a number of “butterfly counts,” the results of many sadly point in the wrong direction. As my eldest granddaughter Allison might point out—she’s studying at the University of Florida to become a veterinarian specializing in conservation, bees being her particular interest—there are numerous ways to help. Consider donating your time and, if you can, your dollars to one of these worthy organizations: The State of the World’s Sea Turtles, Loggerhead Marinelife Center, World Wildlife Fund.

PHOTOS: “Release Day” photos of Olaf and Elsa.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Howard Richard Debs is a recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications. His photography is featured in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), is the recipient of a 2017 Best Book Award and 2018 Book Excellence Award. His latest work  Political (Cyberwit) is the 2021 American Writing Awards winner in poetry. He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, forthcoming from Vallentine Mitchell of London, publisher of the first English language edition of the diary of Anne Frank. He is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.