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Of all the opportunities for sport in which Florida abounds, and they are many, none is so largely available and so little known as "turtling." The gunner who follows the quail, the snipe and the wild duck, and the fisherman who plays the lordly tarpum and the jewfish have each had their enthusiastic chroniclers. The St. John and the Indian rivers, the Lucie and the shallow waters of the Atlantic coast are almost as well known as the trout streams of the Laurentides, the home of the muskallonge and the sporting region in the great Northwest; yet no champion has yet arisen to advocate the claims of the turtler or to describe the scenes and incidents of the turtler's life. Why this should be so has often been to me inexplicable, for turtling is carried on in a district beyond comparison for beauty. It has all the elements which in other spheres are reckoned sport's chief attraction, and turtles are to be caught by the adventurous when nearly every other sporting district of the United States is held fast in the grip of "winter lingering in the lap of Spring."
It is the arrival of that very period which the necessities of language alone make it necessary to call winter in the South that brings back to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and to the reefs of the coast of Florida, the myriads of turtle upon which the merchant and the fisherman depend, though individuals, sufficient for the sportsman, are by no means uncommon all the year round.
The season which in northern latitudes locks up the storehouses of the deep and relegates the hardy mariner to enforced idleness, in the genial South bids him prepare for his summer's harvest. The sharpies of Clearwater Harbor and of Sarasota Bay are overhauled; the miles and miles of nets are made ready for that havoc which the skillful fishermen will inevitably wreak with them, and in due time, from the inland retreat, among the palmetto and the cocoa palms of the coast, or from the Bahamas, come the amphibious "conks," whose feats of daring on and under the sea are as a thrice-told tale.
Then comes that marvelous return of life to all animated nature which, in the topsy-turvydom of terms necessary to convey full meaning to a Northern mind, must be called the spring; albeit it is with him still the depth of winter's gloom. And what a wonderful picture does Florida then present! A sky beside which that of Italy would pale into insignificance; an air beside which that of the Riviera would be debilitating; a sea beside which the Mediterranean is a capricious vixen, and a wealth of bursting foliage which has no comparison the wide world through. If ever there was a land designed to draw men's minds from the strife and struggles, the care and annoyances of life, to lull the shattered nerves and to be a refuge and restorer of those who would for a time be
"The world forgetting,
By the world forgot,
thy name is Florida!"
Follow the turtler down the coast by the mangrove, from Cedar Keys southward; live on the generous fare with which every port is bountifully supplied; spend a fortnight on such a coasting trip and I warrant me you shall have such sport as it has not entered into your mind to conceive and return to your snug hotel at Tampa, or by the Manatee River, at Charlotte Harbor, or where else among its pleasant resorts you have selected, with such a fund of health and pleasing reminiscence it could not fall to your lot to acquire in any other resort within the United States. And all this without any preparation on your part, for that which you will have participated in one of the standard industries of the country, followed for its intrinsic value and not for the delectation of visitors. The habitués of North American restaurants and the aldermanic stomachs of London must needs be supplied with green turtle soup whether Northern sportsmen join in the chase or not; the demand for the shell adornments, so dear and so necessary to the lady's boudoir, will be met, even if the material be gathered by the hardy Seminoles alone. The fleets of Cedar Keys and of Key West will plow the main, and the reefs of Anclote and Sarasota Bay will still be scoured for their golden harvest whether the sport be participated in by the ever-welcome stranger or not; this is half the charm of it, that you are participating in a real transaction, an actual hunt, a living sport and not a put-up pageant.
Whether you follow the sport by land or sea will depend largely upon the period of the year. In the earlier portion of the season the turtling will be that of the sea, and of two sorts, in one of which the turtles are taken by nets and in the other by spearing.
Scores of boats and vessels and hundreds of men are engaged in the trade, for here are the best turtling grounds in the world, and profitable, too, in the main, though very uncertain. A hundred dollars may be realized in a day, but, like the fishermen of old, you may toil all day and take nothing. The net used is a hundred feet long and eight feet deep, with meshes a foot square. The lower part is heavily leaded and kept in position by two anchors, while the upper edge is corked and attached to buoys, one at each end thereof. The nets are planted from a small boat wherever a shoal of turtles are seen. They are sometimes set "on chance," to drift the tide in well-known haunts, several boats working together, pulling in opposite directions and swinging with current until they have entangled their prey in the slowly circling nets. The great danger in this style of fishing is that, instead of gathering in the turtle, the nets are quite as likely to inclose the destructive shark or the scarcely less obnoxious sawfish. The sawfish will swing its powerful weapon through the net, much as an alligator swings his tail, and either dash through it or fight for freedom, become so involved that it can be released only by being out. The shark, owing to his immense strength, pushes more easily through the net, but plays as sad havoc with it, cutting such a diagonal sweep through it that repair becomes impossibility. When all goes well and the only green turtle is caught the net is lifted, the fore flippers of each turtle pierced and tied together, the prizes stowed away in the hold and the nets set again.
Getting a huge turtle into a boat is lively work for a while, and one which is likely to result in an involuntary bath or a capsize if the men are not experts. The best way to do it is to lean over the gunwale, so as to bring it as close to the water as possible, catch hold of the flippers until the body of the turtle is well forward and, then sit suddenly on the opposite side and in tumbles the awkward captive sprawling amidships.
Netting, however, is not by any means so exciting as the alternative means of by "pegging;" this has all the incidents of whaling without its rigors. In this hunting smaller boats, broad of beam manned by two or more experts, make their way to the "runs." One man sculls and the other stands in the bow on the lookout.
Men of experience will espy a turtle almost as far as the human can see even in lumpy water, although the turtle makes less commotion in the water than any other swimming creature, for on only a small portion of his back shows above the surface. Its well-known snort as it comes to the surface more often indicates its locality; it is a sound easily recognized by those familiar with it, and when it breaks water, or "bolts," as it is locally termed, anybody with a good sea eye can follow it. Then the harpooner in the bow clutches his pegging pole, made of yellow pine, light and easy to handle, tipped with a sharp point and a flange to prevent its entering too far into the shell, and away goes the chase; away goes the terrified turtle out to the deep water, and away flies the pursuing boat. Quick must the marksman be, and sure. Whizz goes the pole and with it the spinning line. The peg, if rightly aimed, sinks in the shell, and if the turtle once gets a start before he is surprised and hauled in he will pull the boat with its crew several miles before yielding through fatigue, and at a pace quite surprising. It has not this chance with thoroughly efficient peggers, for every precaution is taken to prevent his scaring the other members of the shoal. He is hauled aboard with as little disturbance as possible and a really clever crew will capture one after another, nearly the whole shoal, without the others having a faint idea of danger.
Sometimes the harpooner is so successful that there is not time to haul the quarry aboard, in which case a keg, large enough to hold about five gallons, is tied to the peg rope and each captive is allowed to swim about until the crew are ready to take them out of the water. Great skill and judgment are required in the "striker," for a thrust that would not enter the shell of an adult would completely pierce a young one, and of course thereby materially reduce its value.
One of the means by which the struggle for liberty is counteracted is exceedingly interesting and nearly always successful, for when the turtle is struck down goes the diver, cleaving the water like a knife, and from a depth of from five to six fathoms of water he will almost unfailingly bring the turtle to the surface. This trick is in fact much easier than it looks, for all the diver has to do is to seize the shell behind the neck with his hands, lift the fore part as much as possible, press his knees against the turtle's back, and up he comes, his fore flippers violently beating the water. It is then an easy task to lasso him aboard. The best turtle divers in the Gulf of Mexico are the Seminole Indians. They have been known to bring an eight hundred pound turtle from a depth of forty feet; but the Bahamians are even more daring and successful. The easiest way in which a novice can acquire the art is to jump on a turtle while it is sleeping on the surface and then hold on like the traditional "grim death." It may be that thus rudely awakened it will attempt to get rid of its unwelcome jockey by plunging downward, but you have only to press the knees against the lower part of the back and lift the front and you will master the situation and the turtle too. This is a favorite diversion of the Seminole boys. It results in much spitting of water and shaking of long, dripping hair, but with care there is no harm. The only danger is from sharks, which, in the excitement of the chase, they may fail to note the approach of. Ordinarily, so clear is the limpid waters of the bay and so white its pure, clean, white-sanded bottom, the approach of these monsters of the deep can be foreseen in ample time to avoid them.
The green turtles are the only species which move in shoals, and I have seen them so abundant in the waters of South Florida that a man could walk, if they were solid, from the back of one to the back of another for quite a distance. This may seem an exaggeration, but whoever has been at "Six Fathoms Set," off the mouth of the Shark River, when the turtle are running, will bear witness that it is almost impossible to overstate their vast number. The have certain harbors or sets," which they generally frequent if undisturbed, and to which they return regularly every night. The noting and discovery of these "sets" is one of the turtler's most anxious occupations, for on it depends his good fortune.
So abundantly are the turtles caught at times that the turtlers build "kraals" of stakes on the most convenient mud banks and place the captives in them until they are required for shipping. They are fed on mangrove bushes and the parsley which grows along the shore, and although at first sulky, after a day or two they feed freely and rapidly fatten; indeed it is no uncommon thing for them to increase in weight from three to ten pounds in the short time they are there; while epicures say that the flesh becomes much more tender and delicate.
Several varieties of turtle found in great abundance in the waters of the Gulf are practically worthless: the loggerhead, for instance, and the largest of all, the gigantic trunkback, frequently attaining a length of twelve feet and weighing a ton, which looks when asleep like an upturned boot; but it is a flesh eater, and unwholesome, if not poisonous, to man, though alligators will fight desperately for it.
After the green turtle the next in commercial value is the hawksbill, not on account of its flesh, for that is worthless, but on account of its shell, which is formed of a series of scales overlapping one another at their extremities, like shingles on the roof of a house. This is the material which is used in the manufacture of combs, snuff boxes, and other ornamental articles. So valuable is this shell that at Key West it finds a ready market at from two to twelve dollars a pound; but this turtle is difficult to catch, and its haunt are dangerous. To render the shell plastic enough to work it has to be heated to a temperature of one hundred and twenty eight degrees and allowed to soak considerable time. Persons who are expert in "scale work," that is, ornamental articles made out of the scales of brilliant Southern fishes, use the shell the hawksbill for producing some of their finest effects. The scales next in demand are those of the grunt, the grouper, the jackfish, the redfish, the yellow-scaled snapper and the tarpum, all denizens of the waters of Florida and its coasts.
All the species of turtle enumerated lay their eggs on the beaches of Florida south of the twenty-eighth degree of latitude; that is to say, they rarely lay to north of Hog or St. Joseph Island, near the mouth of the Anclote River, and only loggerheads are found there. The others species prefer a more southern habitat. Some persons assert that green turtles do not lay on the Florida shore of the Gulf of Mexico at all, but this is a mistake, several having been "turned over" on the well-known spot called Horse and Chaise in Sarasota Bay. As these were caught in the very act of depositing their eggs in a nest, there can be no doubt but that it was a familiar haunt of theirs. The general opinion in the northern part of the State, is that this species goes to Cuban and Mexican shores to construct its nursery, but the spongers know of as much about it as anybody, say that its eggs may be found on all the best islets among the Florida reefs.
The eggs of the green are turtle are much larger than those of the loggerhead, and are considered more palatable by epicures. This superiority of flavor is supposed to be due to their food, which is chiefly vegetable. Turtles commence laying as early as May in the far South, and continue until the latter end of August, their busiest season being during the full moon in June. This is the time usually selected by the residents of Florida for "turning turtles" on the beaches and pilfering the contents of their nests. Excursion parties are formed in different communities, these hire crafts of various kinds to take them to the turtle grounds, which may quite convenient or many miles away. On reaching the scene of operations they prepare a camp on shore or remain aboard the boats and go ashore in the evening. If the turtles are abundant it is nothing unusual for an expert to turn a hundred in a night, but those who capture from ten to twenty are usually well pleased with their luck, that number being more than the average small boat can carry if there are more than two or three persons in the party.
The turtle turners have to work as silently as possible in order to avoid frightening away the creatures; still they often manage to express the ecstasy of their feelings when, say, they pounce upon a three hundred pounder, by a series of eccentric gymnastic movements with arms and legs, trying to dance jigs on the sand, and making grimaces which would be a fortune to a circus clown if he could only imitate them. The irrepressible sometimes forgets everything in his delirium of joy, and whoops loudly enough to be heard by every turtle within miles, especially if the night is calm, as the Southern sea has extraordinary resonant powers under certain atmospheric conditions.
There is a spice of danger in turning turtles which makes it all the more attractive to some natures. This consists in the liability of meeting a bear any moment, for bruin, being a great lover of chelonian eggs, roams the beach all night in search of them, and devours as many in twenty-four hours as a man would in a week. If a bear is encountered suddenly, or disturbed while eating, it is likely to display a pugnacious spirit, but if it is merely ambling around in search of a meal it is more likely to run than to fight. Still, it is as well to be prepared for an unexpected meeting with one by carrying a loaded repeating rifle, as bruin will give a person little time for thinking if he has made up his mind to attack. A party of three of us killed five bears on the Indian River one night while they were searching for turtle eggs, and we might have slain more had not the sandflies bothered us so much as to affect our aim. Both bears and raccoons possess the remarkable faculty of being able to go direct to a turtle's nest, while man, with all his boasted superior intelligence, has to search for it in the most careful manner with a pointed stick, which he thrusts into the ground in every likely spot. Wherever he finds it penetrating easily he clears away the top sand and soon comes to the nicely-arranged layers of eggs, whose delicate hue gleams pleasantly in the bright moonlight.
The number of eggs in a nest varies from one hundred to two hundred, the average being about a hundred and fifty, and the maximum, so far as I have been able to learn, two hundred and eighty.
The shells are soft and elastic, and so porous that their contents evaporate rapidly. The eggs are edible for about a week, but after that they shrivel up so badly as to be little better in looks and taste than so many balls of white rags. No means of preserving them fresh for any lengthened period have yet been discovered, but those taken from captured turtles, and known as " yellow eggs" and "yelks," from the fact that their outer covering is undeveloped, are kept for months and years by drying and pickling them. To dry the eggs they are first soaked for an hour or more in strong pickle, then placed where the rays of the sun will reach them for three or four days, after which time they are ready for use. They are then almost as hard as sandstone. Turtle eggs make excellent pickles, being ready for cooking as soon as they are taken out of the pickle barrel and well washed.
Fully-developed eggs are round, white, and about two or three inches in circumference. They cannot be boiled hard like those of fowls, nor are they as delicate in flavor. The best way of cooking them when fresh is to fry them with plenty of butter, pepper and salt, or to "scramble" them well, as either of these methods modifies their strong though not disagreeable flavor. They are just as good as ducks' eggs for cakes and pastries, and are even preferred for that purpose by some cooks who take a pride in their profession. Comparatively few natives of interior Florida know what a turtle egg is good for, judging from remarks of an old denizen of 0range County, who said that he considered great sin for any person to eat "sich trash and by it make himself unclean." He added that he was "no sarpint eater" and did not want to be, and had no desire "to be wusser nor an Injun." It was a difficult matter a few years ago to get even the inhabitants of the littoral to eat them, but now they are glad to pay from ten to fifteen cents a dozen for them. Captain Watkins, of Anclote, informed me that he tried to sell 5,000 loggerhead eggs in Cedar Keys at one time, but found he could not give them away, the people refusing to touch them.
An observant man will notice that flippers of female turtles are slightly curved, and may wonder why they so, but if he will watch the animals constructing their nests he will soon find answer. Each turtle on reaching a favorite haunt hastens to the highest point which the sea washes, and, selecting a suitable spot beyond it, commences throwing the sand to the right and left, with one hind flipper, then with the other, until she has doug a round hole about two feet deep and a foot in diameter. After testing it, to see that it is complete in every way, she drops her eggs, and when she has finished laying, carefully covers the nest, makes several false demonstrations in the sand close by, in order to deceive all probable destroyers of her unborn progeny, then hastens seaward, there to remain until the maternal instinct again sends her shoreward in search of a nursery.
When the chelonia move in shoals to search for nesting places they are easily frightened by any unusual noise or appearance of an enemy, but after they commence laying nothing can disturb them until they have finished. A person may dance on the back of one at that time and not cause it to wink an eye; but the moment the nest is covered it displays every indication of terror and scurries seaward as fast as it can travel, taking the terpsichorean with it if he does not turn it over.
The noise produced by the clashing of the shells and the scramble of many flippers on the loose sand when a shoal of turtles crawl on a beach during a dark night is quite terrifying to a novice in "turtling," because he cannot tell what produces it, and it has a sound which is totally unlike anything he has previously heard. His heart is very likely to beat wildly at the strange and uncanny sound.
I have known a shoal to scramble through and over a large camp fire, extinguish it and rout the "campers" in the most ignominious manner. The invaders were on their way to a salt-water lagoon close by, which was a favorite haunt of theirs during stormy weather and the laying season. We found them there the next day, and were glad to seek shelter from a tropical storm in their safe retreat and secure some of them for dinner. The advance of an army of turtles is suggestive of an old-fashioned buffalo stampede so far as it seems to defy every obstacle and to push straight ahead, even if destruction awaits all in the column. This is a splendid time in which to turn turtles, but parties must work lively enough to make a living wall around them or they will be compelled to retreat or be overpowered and crushed under the weight of the obstinate reptiles.
I have heard an old settler tell of the rout of a squad of Indians who were encamped near the mouth of the Fabatchee River by an army of loggerheads, and the destruction of several of their dogs that possessed more courage than discretion.
Turtle eggs are so elastic that it is impossible for a person to put back into a nest all that he takes out of it. Few people know the cause of this, but it is easily understood by those who have seen the chelonias covering the nurseries after dropping all the ova in them. A female is so careful to conceal the nest that she scratches sand toward it from every direction, and, having made a mound over it, she rises to her full height, by straightening her legs; then letting her body drop on the mound, she packs it and the eggs as closely as if the work were done by a pile driver. She keeps packing it in this manner until it is as level as any other part of the beach. After inspecting it, to see that it is all right, she makes a few false demonstrations in the sand, in order to deceive the enemies of her unhatched young, then hastens seaward as fast as she can travel, for she knows full well the danger that threatens her ashore.
It requires six weeks to hatch the eggs, and when the young appear they issue from their retreats in such vast numbers that the beach seems covered with them, and they remind one strongly of ants pouring out of an ant hill. They are about the size of a silver dollar, but small as they are they have the instinct of self preservation strongly developed. The moment they come out of the nest they hasten toward the sea and swim away, if they are not devoured by the numerous enemies that lie in wait for them, the worst of which are the sharks, especially the species known as the "nurse" shark. These extend along the beach in water just deep enough to float them, and gobble down the juvenile chelonia as fast as they get within reach. I have heard a veteran turtler say that he found 207 young loggerheads in a nine foot shark, and that the old fellow did not seem to have enough even then, judging from his anxiety to secure some more after being harpooned.
Excerpt from Murphy, J.M., "Turtling in Florida" The Outing Magazine, 1890.
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