03 November 2008

So, Why Sea Turtles?

This is a question I get nearly every day... why would an obviously intelligent, well-traveled, cultured young woman choose to dedicate her life to such an esoteric topic, studying and protecting sea turtles? It's a good question, but not the easiest one to answer.

I started out in pre-med, and switched to ecology and marine biology after being inspired by a very tough professor in undergrad. He was impossible to please, and demanding to the utmost, but he pushed me to find the very best within myself. I'm lucky I found such a great mentor early on. After school, I spent a year working with nesting common and roseate terns on Great Gull Island, New York, then a year teaching, then a summer with nesting piping plovers and terns on Cape Cod.

I loved all of it, but have been called by the sea since I was very young. My mother will tell you that I ran away when we were at the beach when I was two years old. It seems I thought the beach was far more fun than nap time! She said my head was always in the sand... I've posted earlier about my grandmother, my mom's mom, who was also a lifelong inspiration. She taught so much about responsibility, respect and integrity, by example, though I didn't always appreciate it at the time!

I never really stopped searching for the sea ever since my toddler escapades. Though I'd seen many turtles at aquariums throughout my childhood, I 'met' my first wild adult sea turtle when visiting Holden Beach, North Carolina, with a friend in grade school, and I was fascinated. At first, I just loved watching the huge turtle lumber up and down the dunes, and the tiny turtles we later found emerging from another nest on the island. How did these baby turtles navigate the waves, avoid being eaten, grow to the size of their mother, and return to this same beach to nest? I was hooked by the magic and myth of it all. Turtles seem to do a great job capturing our attention!

After several years of volunteer work, I finally started working with nesting sea turtles in an official capacity with Dr. Jim Richardson on his remarkable Little Cumberland Island Loggerhead Project in coastal Georgia. At that point, he'd already spent 34 years of his life on the study -- now it's about 45 years old! Working with the turtles there, I got my first taste of the mysteries surrounding them. Jim was a pioneer in sea turtle science, having trained at the side of Archie Carr (the father of sea turtle biology), but it was apparent we'd been trying to learn about sea turtles by studying their maternity ward, and had seen little else.

After working with Jim, I spent some time working with foraging turtles on sea grass beds and corals, trying to understand a little more about their life history and their role in the environment. I worked with satellite tracking projects to see where the adults roamed after leaving the beaches, and I worked with a consortium of scientists to find mtDNA markers unique to each nesting beach in the Caribbean. From personal observation, fantastic colleagues, and research, it became apparent to this neophyte turtle girl that turtles play a much larger role in overall ecosystem health than we realize.... And the Traveling Turtle Girl was born...

Sea turtles are an umbrella species, kind of like canaries in the global coal mine. Turtles rely on healthy rivers to bring clean water to near shore communities, supporting healthy grass beds, coral reefs, and nurseries for pelagic and neritic species. They rely on healthy reefs and sea grass beds and nurseries themselves as well. Greens need the grass beds, hawksbills feed on sponges growing on coral reefs, loggerheads, ridleys and flatbacks depend on near shore nurseries to provide a continuing supply of food for them, and leatherbacks rely on the jellies. Love those leatherbacks keeping the jellies in check!

I know, it still doesn't sound like much, but it seemed to me that turtles rely on almost everything related to the beach, in the water and out. They need strong dune systems to shelter developing eggs. They need low light levels to allow nesting to continue. They need beaches where their natural predators are not over-populated and decimating eggs and nesting adults alike. They needed reduced and/or controlled human exploitation. They need healthy ecosystems to allow them to feed, grow and thrive. Turtles bridge the gap between land and sea, relying on both and indicating overall environmental health. They are affected by so much, from ENSO (El Nino/Southern Oscillation) to the apparent acidification of the sea, to rising sea levels, to pollution in rivers and streams, to plastic bags and balloons, to high rises and road traffic on the beaches. And they are so lovable. What better animal to use to teach people about their impact on the world?

Everyone who sees a hatching nest seems to fall in love with the tiny turtles, and wants to know how to help them survive. I've seen people literally chase sea gulls hundreds of yards down a sandy beach to keep the birds from feasting on hatchlings. I've watched life-long turtle fishermen turn in to dedicated, enthusiastic environmental educators. I've watched people from every walk of life look on in awe as they meet these amazing animals for the first time. And all of them want to do more to help.

It's so easy to make a difference, once you understand how to do so. That's why I'm still here, still struggling, still trying to change my little corner of the world. If we can each take baby steps to increase our understanding of these magnificent ocean navigators, we really can change the future.

In the next several weeks, I'll talk a little about each turtle species, what makes them unique, and ways we can both learn about them and improve their survival odds.

Thanks for reading my little stream of consciousness... And thanks for caring... Please leave me a note and let me know what you would like to learn!

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International Coastal Clean-Up!

The 2008 Coastal Clean-Up on Santa Rosa Island was a great success, but we can work together to make everyday a Coastal Clean-up Day... Help us keep our beaches beautiful!

For details on the 2009 coastal clean-up efforts in Pensacola or in your area, or other ways you can help, click here.

Hello World!

Hello World!
Which way to the sea?