Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Return of the Leatherback Named Kathy

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Great news arrived in an email just the other day: Kathy came back.

Not my wife, Kathy. (She hasn't threatened to leave me—yet.) I'm talking about Kathy the great, hulking leatherback turtle I photographed on a moonlit beach in Florida. Biologist Chris Johnson wrote to tell me she had come back, once again, to nest and lay her eggs on the very beach where she was hatched many years ago. I found the message joyous—that Kathy had found her way back again after a year at sea and that Chris had known it was her, thanks to the tag we put on her that night one year ago.

A beautiful evening it was on Juno Beach with Chris and his crew from the Loggerhead Marinelife Center as they tracked the annual nesting season of these largest of all sea turtles. The moonlight was actually bright once our eyes accepted the night's soft glow. A gentle breeze joined with the whispering waves, a sound so gentle we spoke gently ourselves.

Through the hours of the night we kept up the vigil, waiting to see if the turtles would emerge from the surf and claw their way up the beach. The beach landing is a titan's struggle for a turtle weighing 500 pounds [230 kilograms] and outfitted only with flippers. But each is driven to return to the beach to find just the right place to dig her nest and lay her clutch of eggs.

I was there on assignment for National Geographic magazine, photographing light pollution and its effects on people and wildlife. Sea turtles can be drastically harmed by the kind of lighting that urban development brings to beaches where these turtles nest. For one thing, turtles like Kathy may return to their home beach only to find that it has been turned into a resort, with glaring high-rise condos sidling along the seashore. Most damaging is the effect on the young turtles when they hatch. The light from nearby developments often confuses them. Tragically, they turn the wrong way when they pop out of the sand and head away from the sea, straight for roads and parking lots bathed in light. They won't survive.

What I saw that night was at once inspiring and disheartening. Far up and down the beach I could see that thoughtful, concerned homeowners were following the regulations: no glaring yard lights at their seaside verandas. Exceptions were disturbing: a mansion awash in colored lights, a swimming pool glowing like the Las Vegas strip. The phalanx of condos in the distance radiated wattage. Adding insult to injury, Kathy had to struggle up through beach chair legs to reach her nesting spot. Chris marked the spot and would return in the morning to map its exact location.

At that moment, we could do nothing but admire this great animal and her inspiring maternal tenacity. It was a great privilege to be there and see it.

On the other hand, the photography was, well, difficult. Because leatherback turtles are endangered, strict regulations govern when and how they may be photographed. Specifically excluded was any kind of lighting. That's a problem, you may well imagine, when there is only moonlight. Fortunately, digital cameras are now exquisitely sensitive to low light. My photographer friends sometimes joke that they can "see in the dark"—and this was a pretty good example.

By pushing my ISO setting up to 6400 and using an f/2.8 lens, I could shoot pictures by the available moonlight at an exposure time of 1.3 seconds. The settings were not exactly fast enough to stop any action, but Kathy was working hard and she had to take a breather every once in a while. Those breathers were about 1.5 seconds long. So if I was ready, I could get off a shot during the moments when she wasn't moving. Once Kathy was nesting and laying eggs, there wasn't much to distract her for 15 to 20 minutes.

Finally, she was done. She headed back home to the sea. With great effort, she dragged herself down the beach toward the waves, stopping along the way for just a bit. With luck I could just get the camera tripod set up where she stopped and get off a frame, pointing it by instinct (too dark to see through the viewfinder) and trying to jam the tripod legs deep into the shifting sands.

When she had reached the waves safely, she could glide off in an instant, once more flying gracefully underwater, in her element, her duty done.

We published the picture in National Geographic and then I more or less forgot about Kathy until the email came from Chris. It is comforting to know that she is back out at sea.

Leatherbacks can live a long time. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll see her again.