"They don’t ask for much," said Mike Reynolds. "They don’t attack anybody. All they ask is a little piece of dry sand."
Reynolds was trying to explain his affection for the sea turtles that nest near Gulf Shores, Ala., which he often spends 18 hours a day trying to protect. And as the unofficial "Turtle Tsar" of Alabama, he’s really got his hands full now.
The reason, it almost goes without saying, is the BP oil spill that raged in the Gulf of Mexico for months and ended up fouling 47 miles of Alabama coastline.
But it isn’t the coast that’s his deepest worry — it’s the oil-coated sargasso grass offshore that the sea turtles are attracted to; now, the grass poses a threat to the reptiles because of the danger that they, too, will end up coated with oil.
For the past decade, Reynolds and hundreds of fellow volunteers have gone to extraordinary lengths to help the baby turtles that hatch on the beach make it out to the sea and eventually to that grass.
Now they’re working desperately to keep them away from it.
"We can’t let them go there," said Reynolds, who is a broker associate at RealtySouth Orange Beach in Alabama. So he and the hundreds of volunteers he directs are now engaged in an elaborate dance to move literally thousands of eggs to a safer locale: Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The plan, he said, is that the eggs will hatch and the sea turtles eventually will find their way back to Alabama.
Reynolds said he hasn’t always been a turtle guy, but he’s always had an interest in wildlife. And he loves the beach that’s two blocks from his current home because it’s where he and his wife became engaged 36 years ago.
While walking there one day about a decade ago, he said, he noticed a sea turtle’s nest that had been marked off, and he called a local wildlife refuge to inquire about it. Officials told him that an informal network of residents patrolled the beaches to track the appearance of the nests of the federally protected turtles, most of which are of the loggerhead species.
Reynolds suggested some ways to improve the volunteer program, and he ended up being in charge of it, he said. Now he’s now widely known as the Turtle Tsar of Alabama.
His efforts evolved as the Share the Beach organization, which now enlists hundreds of volunteers who take turns walking assigned routes along the Alabama shoreline each day from May through October, the turtles’ nesting season.
Their goal is to spot the telltale "crawl," or trail, of female turtles that have dragged themselves onto the beach to dig holes, lay their golfball-sized eggs, cover them, and return to the ocean.
"Right now, at the peak of the season, we find one just about every day. We found one just this morning," he said on Wednesday. That nest was about 40 feet from the water and contained 87 eggs buried under a foot of sand.
The volunteers monitor and protect the nests, then direct the hatchlings in their first moments of their lives back to the sea and away from their worst enemy — the light of civilization.
"Light attracts baby loggerheads, it’s like a magnet," Reynolds said. The lights from the beach houses that have proliferated along the Alabama coast draw the hatchlings away from the water and onto the dunes and roads, where they die, he explained.
"We’ve lost tens of thousands of baby sea turtles over the years because of it," Reynolds said.
The solution was to keep the hatchlings from seeing the light. The volunteers, anticipating the turtles’ likely hatching time, dig trenches from the nests to the water in order to contain the babies’ movements.
"When they start to hatch, you can listen with a stethoscope and hear the baby sea turtles digging up through the sand," he said. "Usually they do it at night, 30 minutes to an hour after sunset. The cool of the sand is the trigger.
"When the sand cools off and the lead turtle decides to go, it’s almost like they get pushed out, in a frenzy, crawling around and trying to get their bearings," he said. "They start heading toward the water, which (in nature) is the brightest thing on the horizon."
To insure further that the only glow the turtles see comes from moonlight on the water, the volunteers erect light-blocking tarps at the sides of the trenches, in effect creating a chute for the march to the sea of the 100 or so hatchlings per nest, he said.
The group’s website, AlabamaSeaTurtles.com, keeps a tally of hatchlings that have made it back to water with the group members’ help. From 2003-08 there were more than 17,000, the site reports.
But, said Reynolds in an interview, that was then — before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20 that took 11 lives, threatening Gulf of Mexico wildlife and the regional economy.
If the turtle-conservation measures were complex before that, he said, they’re extreme now.
"We’ve had to create a whole new protocol," Reynolds said. "Now, at day 50 (in their gestation period), we dig up the eggs, put them in special containers and turn over custody to (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife officials."
FedEx Corp. has donated trucks and services to overnight them to Cape Canaveral, Fla., more than 500 miles away, where the eggs will hatch at about the 80-day mark and the babies head for safer waters, he said.
Alabamians should see those turtles again, eventually, Reynolds said.
"They should be back here in 18 to 20 years," he said. "It takes about 20 years for a turtle to mature. They’re like homing pigeons."
To make sure the turtles remember their address, the volunteers ship the eggs within a medium that tastes and smells right, he said.
"We pack them in deep Alabama sand," he said. "It’s an experiment, but we know that in the first 30 days of the development of the egg is when that sense of location is developed, so moving them at day 50 shouldn’t affect that. We also think there’s a taste and smell factor" that helps the turtles realize they’re in the right place.
All in a day’s work, said Reynolds, who admits with a resigned chuckle that his work day lately hasn’t included much real estate.
"Between my wife and my son and I, we all do sea turtles and we all do real estate," he said. "Between the three of us, we can get back to normal, I think. Right now I’m negotiating two contracts. I’m showing a property today, or my wife is. We balance it the best we can."
When the first oil washed ashore in Alabama on June 5, Reynolds had two contracts collapse, which he said is a direct consequence of the oil, or the fear of it. The buyers, who were investors, said they couldn’t anticipate income from the properties because of the oil, Reynolds said.
Business hasn’t improved much since then, he said.
"Summer is our busiest time. I made $120,000 from May to August last year," Reynolds said. "So far this year, I’ve made $7,000. This is a good way to starve."
He isn’t optimistic about compensation from BP, he said.
But in the meantime, there are the turtles. His voice softens.
"They are amazing creatures," he said. "I love their beauty and their grace in the water. They are such peaceful creatures.
"I love their life cycle. These sea creatures, weighing 250 pounds, come out at night onto dry land, lay their eggs, and leave," Reynolds explained. "The babies, in complete darkness and in a foreign material, they dig up through the sand and find water.
"It is an amazing story."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.