Springtime is mating season. Not only for the birds and the bees but also for our aquatic neighbors in the Gulf of Mexico that are the denizens of the deep. Many scientists have said we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our oceans and the sea creatures that share our planet.
One of the wonderful phases of playing and working on the water is springtime. In early May, before the summer rainy season begins, our water in the shallow Gulf can become as clear as a swimming pool. Huge tarpon and white-spotted eagle rays are always swimming over the shallow sandbars, and with the white sand of the seafloor only a few feet away from the surface of the water, a new vista opens for boaters that can inspire memories and reveal mysteries from the deep.
On a recent sailing excursion when the April water was calm and Caribbean clear, two loggerhead sea turtles came to the surface for air. The pair were easily observed in the shallows as they broached the surface to breathe, but as the big reptiles submerged again, they began to circle each other again and again.
Of course, none on the boat that day were trained in the study of sea turtles, or in marine biology, but it soon became apparent, as the turtles continued to admire and circle each other and check each other out with scrutinizing detail, that we were watching some type of mating ritual. They were obviously two healthy adults in search of what all God’s creatures are searching for at some time in their lives, and as the underwater mating dance continued, a doctor from Alabama who was aboard shared a story that none of the turtle watching humans would ever forget.
“Well, if that’s not a wedding dance or a mating ritual,” our elderly Alabama doctor began, “I’ve never seen one. They look like high school kids on the dance floor at the senior prom, circling and looking at each other. Must be turtle love.”
As we continued to watch the circling sea turtles who were oblivious to us, a young woman in our sailing crew spoke up. “I wonder how old they are?” she asked. “How long do they live?”
“That, young lady, is a very good question.” Our doctor announced as he returned to his seat. We once again set sail and left the sea turtles and their continuing mating dance behind.
“As far as I know,” the doctor nodded, “These sea turtles can live to be a hundred years old, but no one knows for sure. I can tell you however, that what I learned when I was fishing in Mobile Bay changed my mind forever.”
Everyone on board was hooked by the southern gentleman’s opened ended statement and we all listened intently as his Alabama mystery from the deep unfolded.
“It was springtime, and I was fishing with some colleagues in the east end of Mobile Bay. Just before we were ready to stop for the day, I hooked onto something huge and fought it for about ten minutes. When it finally broke the surface, we all realized that it was a very large snapping turtle. We also quickly learned the fight must have killed the old boy because he was quite dead before we pulled him from the water. It was also more than obvious that this was one very old turtle. He had scars all over his shell, he was missing a few turtle toes and part of his tail, and with his ancient face, he looked like the Methuselah of all the turtles.” Our southern doctor chuckled.
“We decided at once that this old turtle trooper needed to go to the university for study, and after we hauled him aboard and dropped him off for a turtle autopsy, we were all shocked when the researchers called the following week to tell us the tale.”
“We learned that our old snapper was probably over 200 years old. We also learned our rough old snapper was an alligator snapping turtle and that during the winter, the turtles hibernate in cold water where the reptile’s heart rate can drop to about one beat per minute. This is one of the reasons for their longevity.”
The doctor continued, “The real zinger for this story was when the folks from the university presented us with a musket ball they had extracted from the old snapper’s shell. Apparently, our snapper had been shot during the Civil War. The extracted musket ball was from a civil war-era musket and our alligator snapper must have seen some action somewhere in the Deep South.” Once again, our southern doctor chuckled. “What we still do not know was whether our snapper was on the Confederate side or if he was a Yankee sent from the states of northern aggression. We also learned that this was not unusual for alligator snappers to be found carrying musket balls, and that some of the older land turtles and tortoises can live to be over 300 years old.”
With everyone aboard amused and fascinated by the tale of the ancient alligator snapping turtle, our southern doctor continued with his charm as he related stories of freshwater catfish in the deep-water ponds of southern Alabama. “Some of those catfish I’ve been told are large enough to frighten scuba divers back to the surface!”
Whether all the tales of this version of the mysteries of the deep are true, no one can truly answer. But apparently in the office of one charming and very distinguished Alabama doctor, there is a musket ball extracted from a snapping turtle that matches the type of weapon used in the Civil War.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.