Orville Clayton got the phone call on a summer afternoon in 1969.
Kit Fernald, who would later become mayor of Longboat Key, was on the line. She told him that a turtle nest was due to hatch, and she invited Clayton and his wife, Vonda, to watch.
The nest didn’t hatch that night. But the next night, it did.
“It was such a thrill,” Clayton said about seeing his first nest hatching. “That’s when I became interested in turtles.”
Clayton, 94, moved off Longboat Key six years ago and now lives at Westminster Manor, in Bradenton.
Shortly after his move, he attended a turtle walk or two, but now, five years have passed since he patrolled the beach for turtle nests.
Clayton sleeps in later than he used to, waking up at 8 a.m. instead of 5 or 6 a.m. like he did during his days of turtle watching, which lasted 35 years.
Shortly after Clayton witnessed his first nest hatching, he became part of an informal group of four volunteers that looked for turtle nests each morning. The group later expanded to become the Longboat Key Turtle Watch.
Clayton admits that, back then, he knew little about turtles. He didn’t know the length of the incubation period (60 days) or the name of the main species that nests on Longboat Key (loggerheads). The group was one of the first turtle-watching groups in Florida — its permit number was No. 11.
Clayton became “Top Turtle” of Turtle Watch in 1979 and transformed it into a group that used scientific research to protect the turtles. He brought his background in zoology — he had earned his bachelor’s in zoology from the University of Syracuse. He attended seminars and relayed what he learned to fellow Turtle Watch members. Every year, under Clayton’s direction, turtle-nesting season began with a meeting at his home.
“It wasn’t a social organization,” Clayton said. “It was for the turtles.”
A few of the changes Clayton saw during his three-and-a-half decades of turtle watching:
• Sea-turtle fishing became illegal, as the result of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In the early days, Clayton used to see a boat drive up and down the Gulf Coast looking for turtles and their eggs.
• Once Turtle Watchers learned that lights from cameras and flashlights disrupted turtles, Clayton became strict about enforcing a no-lights rule among his fellow group members.
• And, in 1996, Clayton was a part of Longboat Key Turtle Watch when the group helped to pass the town’s turtle-lighting ordinance.
These days, Clayton spends much of his time pursuing another passion — woodcarving.
The pieces he has carved adorn his apartment at Westminster Manor. There’s a carving of a ruffed grouse, the bird species he studied as a zoology student. The most recent piece he carved was a Kachina doll, a traditional doll in the Hopi and Navajo cultures.
Although Clayton hasn’t been active with Turtle Watch for five years, the turtles are never far from his mind.
A turtle-shaped jigsaw puzzle hangs on his wall. A woman who works at Westminster Manor gave it to Clayton after she put it together. Even his belt buckle has a turtle on it. Clayton still keeps up with the latest turtle news by reading research journals. He worries that turtle habitats throughout the world are disappearing.
But, even for Clayton, turtle watching has a social element. Every year on his birthday, Longboat Key Turtle
Watch members pick him up and take him out to lunch. Their destination: the Seafood Shack, in Cortez.
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