Each volunteer monitoring Florida beaches has their own special reason for making it their life’s work to protect nesting sea turtles.
It takes all sorts of volunteers – with varied motivations – to monitor and protect loggerheads on a Florida beach
Before sunrise in May, the sand of any beach on Anna Maria Island isn’t warm. In fact, it’s cold enough to make my toes go numb if I were strolling barefoot. But that’s not allowed for a group of beach walkers out on the first of the month – shoes with soles are required. They aren’t your average beachcombers, either. They’re carrying mobile phones and tablets, but they’re looking down at the sand not their devices, searching for an impermanent treasure – the flipper trails left by sea turtles.
Zipping up and down the shore on an allterrain vehicle (ATV) is a woman who stops to give the walkers water, answer questions and snap pictures. She’s also wearing shoes and has the same high-visibility t-shirt that they all have on.
Meet the conservation volunteers of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch. Suzi Fox, the charity’s director and unofficial cheerleader, is the one driving the ATV. The volunteer walkers monitor sea turtle nests along part of the 19km shoreline of Anna Maria Island (AMI), which lies off Florida’s southwest coast, just south of Tampa Bay. This scene repeats daily during the nesting season, from 1 May to 1 November. The primary mission of AMI Turtle Watch is to protect the nests of five species of sea turtle that use the beaches as an incubator: loggerhead, green turtle, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley.
A passion for saving turtles
Since its inception in 1982, the grass-roots effort has been a resounding success. By September 2018, it had documented 8,386 turtle activities, protected 4,942 nests and their contents (a total of 312,402 eggs), and ushered 282,336 hatchlings into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Considering that just one in 1,000 sea turtles will live to adulthood, this is an important contribution to the global effort to prevent extinction. Of the seven species of sea turtle, two are Critically Endangered, one is Endangered and three are Vulnerable; the final species, the flatback, is classed as ‘Data deficient’ so, although they don’t know for sure, it could be in trouble, too.
Suzi credits the turtles with providing her salvation. “In 1990 I was severely depressed because my mother had passed away. With her gone, I was hiding out – not getting out of bed,” she tells me. “A friend who did the turtle watch came over and said, ‘Come on, you get out and walk with me in the mornings.’ That’s what I did, and I can honestly say it probably saved my life.”
Initial reluctance turned into a passion for saving turtles. Indeed, it seems every AMI volunteer is motivated by a highly personal reason for taking on this time-consuming job of protector. Conversations are peppered with lingo they use to describe their work: ‘walkers’ hit the beach in pairs to monitor their assigned 1.5km portion of coastline every day in the season. They’re ‘on the sand’ 20 minutes before sunrise and collect ‘data points’ on new nests and check the status of existing ones. They also note ‘false crawls’ – tracks left by a female turtle that comes ashore but doesn’t nest.
“I have 117 people who work for me every day for free. They love what they do,” Suzi says. “I get up at 4:30 every morning and go straight for the weather. Everybody watches their email to make sure it’s safe. If we hear thunder, everybody stays off the beach until we know the coast is clear.”
Walkers will don waterproofs and go out in the rain, but safety is a top priority. The coordinator who schedules the volunteers is available to provide assistance throughout every walk. Everyone is required to call their coordinator when they find a new nest, if anything unusual happens or if they need help (heat exhaustion is a real possibility).
When Pete Gross retired from his computer science career in 2008, he and his wife dived into sea-turtle volunteering that same year. Both started out as walkers. Now he’s a coordinator for two sections of beach near his home. “It’s my job to go out on the beach and collect the data for the state,” he says. “We try to identify turtle nests and put four-foot stakes in the sand around them
“In 1990 I was severely depressed because my mother had passed away. Turtle watch probably saved my life.”
as protection. Later, after the babies have all hatched and left, we excavate the nests, which means we take out the eggshells and everything else for examination.”
How many eggs hatched, how many didn’t, the number of dead hatchings and other details are all duly noted. Nests are also carefully excavated if a predator such as a raccoon or domestic dog has raided them, thereby gathering valuable information about the impact of predation. The hatchlings are never handled by the volunteers.
Pete uses his professional expertise to compile and report all the data collected. In the USA, national and local authorities enforce wildlife management policies. These government agencies set data collection requirements and provide mandatory training, controlling all of these activities through a permitting process.
Throughout the state of Florida, there are approximately 150 turtle monitoring permits, with permit holders coordinating local activities. Suzi holds four permits and works closely with Pete to make sure their data includes all of the necessary information before submitting it to the state-wide nesting database maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
After 45 years working for a computer science company, why is Pete still geeking out with technology when he’s living in a tropical paradise? I had to ask. His answer reflects the awe in which he holds one of the planet’s few remaining dinosaurs.
“What’s amazing to me is these little hatchlings weigh around 21g and fit into the palm of your hand. When they struggle out of their nest, they head straight for the water,” he says. “They then swim against the oncoming waves, and beyond the waves they use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. And they swim in a frenzy for 24 hours, making a beeline for some seagrass beds 25km offshore.”
As they grow, the turtles ride the currents around the southern end of the Florida peninsula and across the Atlantic Ocean, with many spending their juvenile
October 2018 years in the Azores, off the coast of Portugal. Eventually reaching sexual maturity at 25–35 years, they return to the beaches where they hatched in order to reproduce. “The males never leave the water and females only come out to nest,” Pete says. “The turtles’ whole life-history is just incredible.” But global warming is threatening this ancient life-cycle. Higher temperatures mean hotter sand. The warmer, upper portion of a sea-turtle nest produces females, while the cooler portion at the bottom produces males. The female-to-male ratios used to be 1:1, but recent studies reveal that nests on many nesting beaches now result in 90 per cent female and 10 per cent male turtles. AMI collaborates with the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in mainland Florida as a way to expand what they do to help sea turtles. Gretchen Lovewell, a marine biologist who serves as Program Manager for Stranding Investigations, gushes praise for Suzi and the walkers. “They’re collecting really important data and are wonderful to work with,” she says. “When you collaborate and share that information with really good people it is brilliant for conservation.”
Mote has its own turtle nest monitoring programme on the mainland, responsible for beaches south of Anna Maria Island. But the partnership includes all things sea-turtlerelated. If a member of the public calls Mote about a stranded turtle, AMI volunteers are quick to respond. When a sick or injured turtle is found on the island, they work with Mote to get it to the aquarium for treatment. This intervention can include ‘washbacks’ – baby turtles that don’t make it safely to the seagrass beds and are pushed back to shore by waves, too weak to try again.
When the body of a dead adult Kemp’s ridley (the rarest species found here) was discovered, Suzi asked Gretchen if she wanted to carry out a necropsy. Of course! A wealth of biological information can be gleaned from such a procedure. Satellite tags also provide invaluable information about turtles after they leave a beach. AMI volunteers hosted Mote biologists on the island during the 2018 nesting season in
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order to select two adult females to tag. Back on the island, Suzi talks about how they have focused on outreach.
“In the mid-2000s, we started to focus on educating people,” she says. “Once we started doing that, the tone of everything changed. It became about teaching people how to share beaches with turtles.” Suzi trains beach walkers to chat to residents and holidaymakers about their work, and leaflets with conservation tips are distributed to shops, hotels and restaurants.
Enjoying marine life
Guided walks on beaches and Turtle Tuesday talks are free to the public. The message Suzi want to communicate? “Look what’s happening because you are doing the right thing. Take a bow! You made the difference in what’s going on with sea turtles today by doing the right thing.”
Mary Lechleidner is a retired teacher and turtle watch volunteer. Her vivid description of sunrises on the Gulf of Mexico reveals her deep love of the natural world. “When I’m walking along the shoreline and it’s that silvery, eerie time of morning and the sun comes up, I watch the grains of sand change from grey to golden,” she says. “You have this beautiful water that also changes colour. That quiet, peaceful time… it just fills your heart.”
But Mary’s tone shifts from calm to intense as she describes how a plastic bag floating in the water can appear to a leatherback turtle like its favourite food – jellyfish – and how eating plastic will eventually kill it. Even species that don’t normally prey on jellyfish may end up ingesting plastic.
Mary is optimistic that people can and will help care for sea turtles. “You’ll see folk walking along the beach with a bag picking up rubbish. They’re not part of any organised group – they’re simply here to enjoy the beach and marine life,” she says. “All living creatures on Earth are our responsibility.”
“We started to focus on educating people… It became about teaching them how to share beaches with turtles.”
Flipper trails at dawn are the sign that a loggerhead has laid her eggs overnight in a nest on a Florida beach.
Clockwise from top left: volunteers fence off a new nest; the team always excavates nests 72 hours after they hatch (and, in this case, rescue hatchlings that were left behind); feeding a saved hatchling at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium – once it can dive and compete for food it will be released. Below left: flags mark turtle nests.
Left: a school visit to Mote Marine Aquarium Below: a new hatchling makes its precarious journey from the nest to the shoreline.
MARGO PIERCE is based in the USA and writes about wildlife and science; extraordinarylimits.com