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.”
You would think that we would savor the moment, but not us. Almost simultaneously, we said, “We’re out of here. Let’s go find #57, that chicken turtle.” As we headed back to shore, we telephoned Tim Walsh to advise him that we just found #56. You would have thought he would have congratulated us, but no, not Tim, he just said “now go find #57.” He knew us well.
Thursday morning, December 28, 2017 found George and I excited but trying to face the day pragmatically as we headed through Everglades National Park on our way to Big Cypress National Preserve. George had been shut down several times throughout the year while attempting to find a chicken turtle. He sought help from several turtle experts, including Dr. Kurt Buhlmann, a well-known turtle biologist who has worked with chicken turtles extensively. The only feedback he received was disheartening to say the least. As the day moved on, we both knew without saying it that this would be our last day. We stopped at a few local tour companies and asked the locals if they knew of any chicken turtle sightings. No one could help.
After traveling throughout the day, searching several what appeared to be, ideal habitats, the only thing that we came up with were many alligators. As the morning turned into afternoon, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed towards Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. It really didn’t dawn on me until George pointed out that not only had we not found our chicken turtle, but we had not even seen a single turtle of any species that day, in spite of the ideal basking sites that we found. We agreed that we were elated to find #56, the hawksbill, but it would be next to impossible to find the chicken turtle. As the day started coming to a close, we continued cruising slowly down a long dirt road. Each side had what appeared to be ideal habitat with shallow, clear, slowly moving water with plenty of aquatic vegetation, branches, and floating logs. We could see the sun setting in the west and most of the ideal basking spots no longer had direct sunlight hitting them which would have attracted our hard-shelled treasures. We were approaching the end of the long dirt road. It was 4:00 in the afternoon and we just went over a culvert which took water from one side of the road to the other. It was such a picturesque sight when all of a sudden, George excitedly said “turtle.” There it was basking on a log which still had a bit of sunlight hitting it. Excitedly, he took out his binoculars to verify his suspicion and then yelled “chicken turtle.” The turtle posed long enough for us to snap off a few photos and only dove into the water when George pushed his luck by moving a bit closer. George told me later that initially he wasn’t positive that it was a chicken turtle, so he left out the word “chicken.” This was in order to, I’m sure, save face, as all of us turtle nerds do. The last and final species for The Big Turtle Year was found and #57 was appropriately named Heinz, the chicken turtle.