Balaclava. Check. Bug jacket with hood. Check. Headlamp. Check. Baseball cap to hold it all on. Check. With her essentials in tow, Kathy Worley, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s director of environmental science and head of the Conservancy’s Sea Turtle Monitor and Protection Program, heads out to Naples’ Keewaydin Island for a nighttime turtle nesting patrol.
One of the Paradise Coast’s wildlife-preserving jewels, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida created the Keewaydin Island Sea Turtle Monitor and Protection Program in 1982. The Conservancy, along with governmental, public, and private organizations, is seeing long-term turtle nest preservation success thanks to hard work from scientists, experts, volunteers, and, yes, even the turtles themselves.
The focus of many Southwest Florida sea turtle advocates is on the more commonly observed loggerhead, or Caretta caretta, which is at threatened status in the Sunshine State and endangered in other parts of the world. Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) also nest on local beaches and are monitored on Keewaydin Island but only occasionally seen. Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) rarely nest here nor spotted nearby. And Kemp’s ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempi) don’t nest in the area, but they are sometimes seen along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Worley has worked at the Conservancy for 26 years, and along with her colleague Maura Kraus of the Collier County Sea Turtle Protection Program, they are women scientists making a huge difference. “Thirty, forty years ago, the science fields were male-dominated,” says Worley. “At that time, it was very difficult to break in. However, times have changed. Women have really made their mark in the turtle conservation field. What is amazing it that a lot of the former interns from the Conservancy are now in senior positions in agencies that work to protect sea turtles. They’ve also gone on and done research on sea turtles, and that is mainly a tribute to Dave Addison, former head of the Keewaydin project. He’s a fantastic person. He’s Mr. Sea Turtle and has been for years. He has mentored so many women who have gone on to make significant contributions.”
Regardless of gender, being a turtle researcher and conservationist is not for wimps. For instance, tagging turtles from a skiff—trying to scoop them out of the water, check tags, and release them in all kinds of conditions—takes stamina and grit. “All of the bugs, the heat, the thunderstorms, the lightning, none of that matters to the turtles,” Worley notes. “They’re not made to be on land. They’re covered with mosquitoes and no-see-ums. They have flippers, not legs. They weigh an average of 200 to 300 pounds and live an average of 50 years. They have to find the right spot on the beach to nest. They dump a ton of eggs, an average of 90 to 100 in each nest, three or four times a summer. It’s hard work, but seeing these babies erupt out of the nest and get to the Gulf inspires us to help.”
The will to protect and conserve the loggerhead sea turtle, with its signature heart-shaped, ruddy-brown shell, is a mighty force. This type of sea turtle—which likes to nosh on fish, crustaceans, jellyfish, and occasionally seagrass and algae—was named based on its large head and powerful jaw. The late conservationist Archie Carr rang the clarion bell with his 1956 book, The Windward Road, detailing the plight of marine sea turtles. The confluence of commercial trade, fishing nets, hooks, boat strikes, coastal development, predation of egg nests, bright lights, intense weather events, and more had depleted the turtle population. Locally, day-to-day work continues to improve the hatchlings’ odds of surviving to adulthood, a period of 20 to 30 years. “Turtles go into a trance when laying eggs, so we can work without bothering them during that time,” Worley explains. “We take measurements, a tissue sample, and pit tag the turtle. Then, after the turtle leaves, we dig down around the perimeter and secure a wire cage over the nest to keep out predators.”
Even today, it is estimated that only one in 1,000 turtle hatchlings, each around 2 inches long and weighing 0.7 ounces, makes it to adulthood. Do the math: If a mommy turtle lays 100 eggs in three separate nests, the chances of one of her babies reaching maturity is very slim. But there is some good news in local loggerhead data logs. Protective measures have helped turtle nest and hatchling counts increase, depending on how many turtles lay eggs in any given year. Over time, there has been a significant upward trend on Keewaydin Island. In addition to the Conservancy’s program, the Collier County Department of Parks and Recreation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Turtle Time, and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation all work together to protect turtle nesting habitats. They, too, have seen increased nest and hatchling numbers.
Maura Kraus, Collier County’s principal environmental specialist, is responsible for the county’s Sea Turtle Protection Program and has likewise seen steady, strong progress. “In the mid-1990s our numbers were very low,” says Kraus. “The good news is that we have seen nest numbers grow since then, especially in 2012, when the numbers doubled. Progress takes time.”
Marine turtle permit holders, who are sanctioned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are usually professional biologists or scientists. They’re leading the charge in these conservation efforts, with help from a dedicated cadre of volunteers, all of whom are trained by permit holders at their specific organizations. Many volunteers start as “walkers,” looking for signs of turtle activity on a preassigned beach zone and recording the data. Sanibel resident Irene Nolan volunteers with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “I love helping the sea turtles survive,” says Nolan. “The lengths the females go to lay their eggs, and the resulting hatchling’s effort to get to the water, are experiences that never get old.”
Ongoing and new challenges remain. Feral pigs and raccoons have the strength and smarts to pull out cages. High tides, beach erosion, and coastal encroachment continue to diminish turtle habitat, known as the “coastal squeeze.” Despite all of these issues, in-the-trenches scientists like Worley remain optimistic about the progress they’ve seen. “One of the coolest things is that the turtles born on Keewaydin 20 to 30 years ago—when I first started working at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida—and survived to adulthood are now coming back to nest,” notes Worley. “It takes a lot of backbreaking work to do this project. Knowing we have played a small part in helping these magnificent creatures is what makes me want to keep going.”
Tips for Being Good Turtle Neighbors
1. At beaches, turn off or shield lights during nesting season (May 1 through October 31).
2. At your homes near the beach, replace outside bulbs with amber LED bulbs.
3. Do not direct a cell phone light or flashlight at a turtle.
4. If you live near the beach, close drapes or blinds after sunset.
5. Don’t touch cages, nests, eggs, or turtles.
6. Keep dogs and cats away. They’re very good at finding eggs.
7. Take away all garbage and anything else you bring to the beach.
8. Pick up your plastics and be sure to cut six-pack ring holders.
9. Use turtle-exclusion nets.
10. If you see a turtle or hatchling in distress, including going the wrong way on the beach, do not touch the turtle. For assistance, call the Collier County Department of Parks and Recreation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, or the Florida Fish and Wildlife hotline.