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A trail told in sand

THE beach is black and deserted when we arrive shortly before midnight. Our search will begin here. Stashing shoes beneath a piece of driftwood, we pad through the cool sand to the water's edge. ``Let's head north first,'' my companion says. ``Just look for the tracks. You'll know them when you see them.''

I follow along as instructed, scouting the shoreline for the tractorlike trail this mysterious phantom of the sea leaves on its once-yearly pilgrimage to land.

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Out to the east, perhaps 20 miles over the Atlantic Ocean, giant jags of lightning crack the black sky from the horizon clear up to the bank of clouds that screens the full moon. The bursts sear the night like flash bulbs. I strain to hear the thunder over the surf. A half minute passes before the low rumble rolls in. We know the storm is a long way off.

It isn't my idea to be spending a Friday night on this rain-threatened stretch of south Florida beach, searching for primitive sea beasts. My idea was a quiet dinner and conversation with an old friend I had not seen for several months.

But Charlie had different plans. ``You know what season this is?'' he asked as we divided up the restaurant check.

``Hurricane season?'' I ventured.

``Better yet. Nesting season for the loggerhead sea turtle. They return to the same spot once a year, lay their eggs, then that's it for another year. It's something to see.''

So here we are, trudging through the wet sand, trying to witness the age-old ritual that coastal Floridians quietly celebrate each summer after the tourists return north.

``I see something,'' Charlie hisses, raising his arm like a scout. Sure enough, two faint tracks, four feet apart and each about eight inches wide, trail up the beach to high ground. We follow. The pair of tracks end in a crater six feet around.

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``A nest,'' Charlie says, dropping to one knee. ``Looks like it's a couple of days old.''

I step closer. Whatever dug this hole was a lot bigger than the turtles I remembered from the botany tank in grade school.

``Careful. Don't disturb it,'' my friend warns. ``Let's keep going.''

My interest is piqued now. I want to see one of these hulking reptiles. Charlie tells me they lay 100 or more golf-ball-size eggs. Then they slip back to sea, leaving their young to fend for themselves when they hatch two months later.

We walk two miles up the beach and this is what we see: one man-o-war nearly stepped on, two crabs scurrying in the surf, thick clumps of seaweed, and a pair of lovers passing arm in arm. But no turtles.

Walking in the loose sand is tiring, and the salt in the air clings to my skin and clothes like cotton candy. The adventure, I grumble, is growing old in a hurry.

``Better head back,'' Charlie says.

When we're within a few hundred yards of where we had our shoes, I spot what looks like a boulder in the surf. But in a burst of blue-white light, I clearly see the glistening humpback. As my eyes readjust to the darkness, I see plainly it is moving.

``Look! Look!'' I whisper, grabbing Charlie's shoulder.

He hushes me and we advance silently. The trademark bulldozer tracks cut like twin scars across the wet sand.

``Give her some distance,'' Charlie says, and we stop 40 feet away. We guess her to be four feet long and two feet wide. Her front flippers splay out another foot and a half on each side. Slowly, awkwardly, she struggles up the embankment into dry sand. She moves in fractions of inches; she rests often.

The turtle takes 10 minutes to toil inland 75 feet. She selects the nest without hesitation, as if led to the precise spot by radio beacon. On a sandy plateau well above high tide she begins digging, her flippers clearing the sand like giant windshield wipers.

The work proceeds slowly. It is obvious that this hulking sea turtle is out of her element on land. We slip in close and drop silently to our knees - so close, in fact, we are showered by shovels of her sand. She ignores us.

After clearing a large shallow dish, the loggerhead uses a rear flipper to scoop out a cylinder in the middle of the dish, directly beneath her abdomen. The process is even slower and more clumsy than the first.

After 40 minutes of nest building, the turtle is prepared to lay her eggs. She hunkers over the hole and tilts her shell up in the air like some prehistoric dump truck. Her head and neck extend fully from beneath as she strains silently to deliver. Her quarter-size eyes glisten black in the half-light, expressionless and primordial. Minutes pass.

Then she collapses flat in the sand, exhausted, I imagine, with the effort. Her eyes blink and lips smack. We sit frozen an arm's length away, and I wonder if this instinctual creature from the earliest years of earth life knows - or cares - we are there.

She is so still I think for a moment she has died from the strain. Finally the turtle stirs. Sluggishly she swings her flippers in wide arcs and begins filling the hole. She rests frequently now; her movements are like an exhausted athlete's.

``I want to reach over and help her,'' I whisper to Charlie. But he just shakes his head and I remain still. Burying the nest takes about as long as digging it. Then, apparently satisfied that her eggs are safely hidden, the loggerhead lumbers out of the crater and back toward the water.

We walk along on each side. I run my hand over her ridged shell, now covered with sand, and gingerly stroke the tough leathery flippers.

A lightning flash illuminates the sea turtle one last time as she reenters the water at the exact location where she emerged. The first drops of rain arrive, carried on a stiffening wind. We wade into the shallows where the turtle struggles on a sand bar and give her a nudge.

For just an instant I consider the crazy possibility of holding tight to her shell and letting her carry me out to sea. A free journey into her world. But, of course, I know that would not be practical. She would not be returning for another 12 months.

She darts off into the early-morning blackness. We stare after her for a long time.

``See you next year, maybe,'' Charlie calls out into the wind and rain.

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