Adventure / Exploration

Backyard treasures

Words and photography by Zach Levitetz

There’s no place quite like home.

Distant adventures have their place, no question about that, but pulling up to your local beach on a beautiful day ignites a much more rooted and established feeling. Growing up in a small beach town in South Florida, I often overlooked all the amazing things taking place in my local area. I always loved to surf and be around the ocean, but it wasn’t until I first picked up a camera in my mid-20s that I really started noticing the wonder of my backyard.

My journey into exploration and photography started with a focus on waves and sunrises. I remember thinking to myself how lucky I was to have such clear water and beautiful waves so close to home. Little did I know at the time, but this was my first small step into a world of local adventure.

Early mornings out on the sandbar helped introduce me to a small crew of ATV-riding sea turtle nest monitors. I had always known about Florida’s sea turtle nesting season, but had very little knowledge of the local phenomena.  Over time I became friends with a few of these local nest monitors. They allowed me to join them on their morning routine – as long as I could keep up!

I showed up day after day, running as much as four miles a morning trying to keep up with the ATV in the hope of learning something new or having a great photo opportunity present itself.  After proving my passion to the other nest monitors I was invited to become a monitor myself, which is when my real sea turtle hatching adventure began.

Over the course of the next few months I learned how to mark nests, identify turtle crawls by species and excavate nests. Today I am a permitted sea turtle nest monitor under Sea Turtle Adventures, a non-profit organisation made up of an amazing group of six local sea turtle lovers. I have had incredible experiences watching the sunrise as loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtle hatchlings make their march from nest to ocean.

There is a darker side to sea turtle nest monitoring – you do see the circle of life first hand. Scientists say that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood. Working as a nest monitor you quickly understand why. Raccoons, foxes, seagulls and crows all line the beach in the summer months waiting for an opportunity to catch an easy meal. Once the hatchlings reach the ocean they face a whole new list of predators. Everything from small coastal fish to large pelagics have the sea turtle hatchlings on their menu, but throughout this entire process the hatchlings carry themselves with a fearless confidence. Next time you see a grown sea turtle, know that it is a survivor.

Growing up, my encounters with wild sea turtles were always fleeting. They seemed to disappear just as I saw them, their skittish nature making it difficult to get close. My understanding of their behaviour changed forever when I discovered a juvenile sea turtle haven. I was told about the secret spot after trading some local knowledge with another South Florida photographer. No boat was required, just a long beach walk and a short swim out to a shallow reef. Dozens of turtles were encountered. Many of them were – and still are – extremely tolerant of divers, provided respect is shown.

When the tide pushes in large schools of moon jellyfish, the turtles dine with delight.  I have witnessed jellyfish feasts that lasted hours – a seemingly endless buffet.  Unfortunately, I have also seen sea turtles excitedly approach plastic bags, mistaking them for moon jellyfish. I have pulled countless plastic bags away from sea turtles as they approached the deadly material; just imagine all the times that a diver isn’t there to lend a helping hand. While it is amazing to have so much nature close to the urban area I call home, the sight of floating plastic and trash is a reminder of the harm we are causing to our local wildlife.

Of course, turtles aren’t the only creatures that call the Floridian coastline home. As a surfer I grew up with what I considered to be a healthy fear of sharks.  Surfing culture teaches you to fear sharks more than understand them. You have to put a mask on and share the water with a shark to realise they are not the mindless killers the media portrays them to be. When I first observed how curious and cautious sharks can be, my fears subsided. I was left mesmerised by them. After getting my first taste of shark diving I was hooked.

Shark diving was also my introduction to the world of freediving. I have never used scuba and do all my diving and photography on a single lungful of air.  Local freedivers introduced me to the deep clear springs of northern Florida, giant pits of clear water perfect for learning breath-hold techniques. After just a few months of practice I was able to reach a depth of 35 metres on a single breath.

The combination of these new worlds – freediving and shark diving – led me to place that would change my life forever. Just a two-hour boat ride away from home in Boca Raton lies the beautiful Bahamas. My friends and I make the journey over whenever the weather permits, diving in one of the most beautiful places on earth, where it is possible to dive with as many as six different species of shark at the same time, all in crystal clear water on a shallow bank of glistening white sand.

I had been surrounded by all of these amazing places and people my entire life, but was unaware of their existence. I’ve learned the importance of getting to know your own backyard and the people who call it home. Most excitingly, I feel my journey is just getting started.

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