SCCF’s Sloan directly seeing benefits of sea turtle conservation
Ever since Kelly Sloan was able to experience a leatherback sea turtle nest on the beaches of Costa Rica as a volunteer, she was determined on helping conservation efforts for the endangered species.
Sloan’s journey to the Sanibel Capitva Conservation Foundation is littered with her love of wildlife conservation. It includes earning a B.S. from Virginia Tech in biology, working as a research technician in a Virginia Tech lab investigating how animals use the magnetic field to orient and navigate, to her time in South Africa where she studied baboons at Wildcliff Nature Reserve.
But it was her time in Costa Rica which directed her to the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.
“Ever since I saw those leatherback sea turtle nests, I was hooked,” Sloan said.
Her timing of entering the sea turtle nesting field couldn’t have been any better, either. Over the course of the last three years, sea turtle nesting numbers on Sanibel and Captiva have surged past record numbers.
Not only are sea turtle nesting numbers on a significant rise on the islands, but up and down the Southwest Florida coast, as well.
“The efforts over the past 30 to 40 years of sea turtle conservation is really paying off and it’s showing by the nesting (stats),” Sloan said. “It’s a very exciting time to be a part of sea turtle conservation.”
Sloan dove right into the sea turtle conservation when she started working for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program in 2007. She was involved in the coordination of sea turtle conservation in the entire state of South Carolina, which included coordinating over 30 projects and over 1,000 volunteers.
During her time in South Carolina, she earned her master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy.
Sloan took her position at the SCCF as biologist and sea turtle coordinator in December of 2013. The draw to SCCF and the islands was how the community and City of Sanibel worked in conjunction with the organization on sea turtle conservation, along with the great marine labs the organization had.
“The public and the community of Sanibel and Captiva in sea turtle conservation has been overwhelming,” Sloan said. “The residents and the City of Sanibel have been such a help during sea turtle nesting season, such as passing the Dark Skies ordinance and just being vigilant for the sea turtles on the beaches.”
Obviously, her busy time of the year is March through October, when the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season is in full swing. Her main duties include coordinating the many volunteers on Sanibel and Captiva, who are up walking on the beaches before the sun comes up recording sea turtle false crawls, nests and hatched nests.
“The bottom line is that the volunteers are doing the majority of the field work,” Sloan said. “I support them, coordinate schedules and help train them of what to look for and record. I also have to report the numbers to the state. The volunteers are such an important (asset) for the sea turtle program.”
Sloan is the face of the SCCF for the public as far as sea turtle conservation is concerned. She takes many phone calls from the public about questions which arise about sea turtles.
“People are very curious about the sea turtles here and I want to help raise as much awareness as possible,” Sloan said. “We also have new educational signs posted near sea turtle nests explaining everything about sea turtles and their nesting (practices) and what not to do when you come upon a nest. But all that awareness helps the other critters on the beach, as well.”
Working a job which is your passion creates many memories. Sloan’s best experience as the SCCF sea turtle coordinator came last summer when she was walking the beaches recording nesting numbers.
“We were watching an adult loggerhead sea turtle walking up the beach to lay her eggs in her nest from a safe distance away, when another nest about 10 feet away from her just erupted like a volcano with hatchlings,” Sloan said. “The hatchlings just came boiling out of the nest. To see a nest hatch the same time another adult female is looking to lay her eggs, is such a rare moment.”
So rare, in the nearly three years and countless hours Sloan has been on the dark beaches at night, she has seen around only five to 10 nests actually hatch.
“You need perfect timing, it’s once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Sloan added.
During the busy tourist season, challenges arise to bringing as much conservation awareness to the people who are not familiar with the laws and practices of Florida wildlife. SCCF, along with the City of Sanibel distribute much educational literature to tourists when they are visiting the islands, such as “After Nine, It’s Turtle Time!”
“But the tourists are actively trying to learn and all the wonderful organizations on the island like CROW, the National Shell Museum, ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge and the SCCF have a great collaboration in bringing awareness to people,” Sloan said. “That’s one of the best things working on Sanibel.”
Even though sea turtle nesting numbers are on the rise, it doesn’t mean they are not still endangered and out of the woods, so to speak.
That fact alone is the driving motivation for Sloan into putting everything into her position at the SCCF.
“It’s a rewarding experience working with all the biologists and people at the SCCF,” Sloan said. “This is a very unique and special place for wildlife conservation, because we all have that same common goal in mind. I am very passionate about wildlife conservation, while promoting and spreading awareness. Being able to work with the SCCF and on Sanibel has been a perfect place to work.”