Pat's Wildways

Hit the Surf, Gopher Tortoises


Lots of our longtime residents on Amelia Island know that gopher tortoises, those lumbering creatures of the dunes, sometimes make their way to the sea. Occasionally, over the years, I, too, have seen a single gopher tortoise on the beach heading towards the surf. When this happens, those informed among us know that this is normal behavior for them, sometimes. Those well-meaning folks who try to toss these “sea turtles” into the sea are wrong. Gopher tortoises do not swim. But they do enter the sea sometimes for various reasons that no one is certain of, except the tortoises themselves.

But, even for me, in all my years walking the beach, I never had a morning like I did recently. In about a half mile walking south from the Scott Road beach access at low tide I saw three gopher tortoises individually making their way to the surf. One would not be unusual, but three?

The first tortoise I encountered was an adult with a crushed carapace that didn’t seem to impede its progress as it galloped toward the ocean. And galloped I mean. Even my photos show its raised legs in its fast-as-it-could-go progress toward the surf line. That was great, I thought, and continued on with my walk.

But then, before long, what is that rounded, dark lump in the waves? OMG, it was another tortoise! This one was in the surf, submerged completely as the waves washed in. But the tortoise didn’t seem to mind at all. When the waves retreated, it stayed there and even moved a bit deeper. I was transfixed watching it, and then the inevitable happened. The brick-shaped tortoise got knocked over, upside down, legs flailing. I rushed out to “save” it, getting my sneakers soaked in the process, but I couldn’t just watch this tortoise in distress, right? So I gently lifted it and set it upright on the sand next to the surf. And what happened next amazed me even further. The tortoise headed back into the ocean. And, as I continued watching I swear the tortoise surfed! Again and again, it got lifted by the incoming waves and floated to shore, and then, again and again, it lumbered out deeper, waiting for the next wave to wash it in. It was amazing to watch.

Okay, so that was it for tortoises today, right? Well, no. As I was watching this tortoise some local beach walkers joined me and told me there was yet another tortoise on the beach, visible as another dark hump further south. And I told them about the other one further north. Like me, these regular beachgoers have seen a single tortoise heading to the waves, but none of us have ever seen three at the same time on the same stretch of beach.

When I got to the third tortoise, I looked at it closely and saw two engorged ticks, one on its neck and the other on a front leg. Ah, this is one explanation. The tortoises are heading to the sea to remove parasites like these ticks. Or maybe they are just heading into the surf to cool off. After all, we have had a recent series of very hot and humid days, and this must affect tortoises, too. Although they can retreat to their deep burrows in the dunes to cool off a bit, maybe this heat and humidity were driving them to the ocean for a refreshing dip, just like we humans.

I imagine the tortoises in the dunes could sense when it was a low tide like this morning, and that the waves were mild ones. This combination of factors drew these three tortoises to the sea, the perfect morning for a dip. But once they got there, the fact that tortoise number two stayed in the water for long minutes, riding the small waves back to shore, didn’t fully explain their reason for being there.

I actually think they were having fun. Playing. Surfing. Do tortoises play? I never thought of this before, but really I can see no other explanation for tortoise number two’s repeated slides in the waves to shore. When you think you know it all about nature, be prepared for a morning like this one. The surprises in store for us are never-ending. Go, tortoises, go!

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

gopher tortoise, ticks, surfing