Turn­ing tur­tle

Each vol­un­teer mon­i­tor­ing Florida beaches has their own spe­cial rea­son for mak­ing it their life’s work to pro­tect nest­ing sea tur­tles.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Margo Pierce Photos Ben Watkins

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.

Swim­ming frenzy

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.

Satel­lite tag­ging

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

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