Q&A with Conservancy of Southwest Florida Biologist Leif Johnson

NI caught up with the go-to guy about Collier County conservation, camping, microbrews, and more

Leif Johnson with a gator skull at Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge in Immokalee.

The past five years in Naples have marked some of the biggest and best moments in Leif Johnson’s life: He launched his career as a biologist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, he met his fiancé, Katie Ferron, and he was “astounded by the beauty of Clam Bay, again and again, while studying the mangroves in the area.” This handy outdoorsman grew up on a farm and graduated from UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s in natural resource conservation. He’s made himself indispensable to his colleagues in the Conservancy’s science department by repairing ATVs and getting involved in several ongoing projects, such as the Picayune Strand restoration project. He notes that if you look at a map of Collier County, “70 to 80 percent of it is conservation land, and it’s a water world.” On the next page, we chat with Johnson about turtles, microbrews, and more.

NI: What’s up with the turtle project on Keewaydin Island?

Johnson: I’m out there three nights a week looking for nesting sea turtles to measure and tag. This data collection is incredible, going on for 40 years. We see loggerheads and occasionally green sea turtles. Turtles lay around 100 eggs, and the survival rate is astronomically low, so it’s important that we protect them from predators like coyotes, wild hogs, and racoons, and get hatchlings out to sea.

Starry sky at Big Cypress

Do any assignments put you in the water?

Yes, the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles project. I’ll go on a boat to Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay and try to catch them in a mullet skiff with an outboard engine. We throw the net out back, and it’s the most ridiculous game of hide-and-seek. We wait for a turtle head to pop up for a breath. When we get one, my co-worker, who’s been doing it for 30 years, puts satellite tags on them to track their movements. Also, we try to get a poop sample to study their diet. A most surprising find is that they are considered crab eaters, but they switch to eating sponges and tunicates, which are invertebrates on the sea floor.

Johnson and his fiancé camping at Big Cypress

Where do you hang out when you’re not on turtle duty?

I prefer to be on a boat, but my fiancé and I will go to Park Shore Beach because it’s the closest to my house. We also love going down south of the pier to Bad Ass Coffee, and then to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Third Street Café, which serves massive breakfast sandwiches. We grab all that and go to the beach in the morning. I also like microbreweries, and Beach Brewery and Ankrolab are good. Felipe’s is a reoccurring theme in my life, and so is the margarita on the rocks and the burrito bowl.


Do you have a favorite local outdoor adventure place?

There’s so much research on how nature is good for your mental and physical health. Check out the Greenway here in Naples; it’s an incredible resource. Everywhere needs to have more greenways—easy access to a natural area that’s big enough to get away from roads and traffic. I love going camping with my fiancé, to get away from the noise of the city and disconnect for a bit. Camping is funny, though. It makes you appreciate everything you have at home when you get back, like a shower.

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