The Last Chapter
Post by Bob Krause
Ten days before Christmas, I received a telephone call from my good friend and turtle biologist, George L. Heinrich. I have been associated with George for several years now as we both share the same passion for turtle and tortoise conservation. A couple of years ago, George and his partner with the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, Tim Walsh, came up with the crazy idea of traveling throughout the entire United States observing as many of the nation’s 59 species as they could possibly locate in a one-year period. This idea culminated into one heck of a challenge, but as they shared their ideas with other turtle biologists, conservationists, and enthusiasts, it lit a fire that was insurmountable. The goal was to bring awareness to the plight that chelonians face throughout the country. Their habitats are dwindling and being compromised to the extent that several species are already threatened and or endangered with extinction.
The Big Turtle Year (www.thebigturtleyear.org) was born. George and Tim set out to initiate their endeavor on January 1, 2017. They mapped out a strategic plan with several itineraries meeting up with local turtle experts in numerous locations throughout the country. As they began their mission, “turtle people” from all corners jumped in and volunteered their expertise. Sponsors contributed to help offset the expenses. Partners helped identify study sites where George and Tim would visit. These local experts guided them into carefully selected habitats of the sought after species. As the year unfolded, The Big Turtle Year website documented all of the endeavors and successes inching towards that #59 goal.
When George called, I thought he was merely going to wish Denise and me a Merry Christmas, but he had something else in mind. The Big Turtle Year was winding down. He already accepted the fact that he and Tim were not going to hit that 59 number. As of that date, there were four species left and the chances of locating them all were next to impossible. They were at #55 and there was less than 3 weeks left in the year. Of the four remaining, two of the species would be impossible to locate due to the weather. Hibernation had already started. However, there were two other species which George felt he had a shot at no matter how high the odds were stacked against him. These two species were the hawksbill sea turtle and the chicken turtle, both of which he already knew would be extremely difficult to locate.
“Bob, I’m planning on traveling to the Florida Keys in a week or so. I have to give it one last try. I’ve got to find a hawksbill turtle. Can you join me?” I just smiled and thought “Yeah right, over the Christmas holidays, is he crazy?” Denise and I were in the kitchen finishing our holiday planning as we were about to welcome 22 people for Christmas dinner. She overheard George’s request, looked at me and said “Go for it, Bob.”
The next thing I knew, I was flying to Tampa on the day after Christmas excited to be with George on his last quest of The Big Turtle Year. We stopped at our favorite Mexican restaurant in Palmetto on our way to the Keys to discuss the plan. We would be meeting up with Jim and Harrison Barzyk and their friend, Ken Hoops, from Michigan. Earlier in the year, Jim, my son James, and I guided George in locating #31, a Blanding’s turtle in southwestern Michigan, and #32, an ornate box turtle in western Illinois. At 9:00 the next morning, Wednesday, December 27, 2017, the five of us embarked in a rickety little boat searching for the reef which we were told would provide the best possibility of seeing a hawksbill. As we approached the reef, we tied up to a floating buoy. I was still nurturing a sinus infection, so I elected to stay on board as the other four began snorkeling in 2’ waves. The water was rough and a bit murky. I took it upon myself to carefully watch the four of them as they snorkeled and dove looking for our treasure. I became worried more than once as I lost track of one or two of the team due to the waves. Harrison had the best luck locating a few turtles, but we weren’t sure of the species. As time was beginning to run out in that location, at exactly 12:00 noon I heard George yell out “Wahoo.” I knew what that meant and immediately untied the boat and headed over to pick up “one happy camper.” He described the moment to the “T.” It was like a surreal experience where as George described, his mind was beginning to wander. He was canvassing an area of the reef being mesmerized by the moment. Thinking of that day, and what it meant to him personally. Then all of a sudden, it appeared; the most marvelous site only 10’ away. The markings on the carapace, head, and front flippers were so clear and beautiful. There were two metal tags on the front flippers which indicated that this specimen was involved in a study. George didn’t want to disturb the turtle and instead just elected to follow it briefly as it slowly swam out of sight. He thought he was dreaming. As George boarded the boat, I snapped a picture of that “grin” he always displays when he is happy. After he settled down a bit on the boat and as the rest of the team was climbing on board, George looked at me, smiled, and said “I like turtles.”