Volunteers dedicate their time to help protect sea turtles
Just before the sun rose Friday morning, two volunteers gathered at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation with great anticipation of what would lie ahead.
With a supply packed vehicle, the excitement began brewing for Irene Nolan and Nancy Riley, both certified sea turtle nesting permittees, as the tires hit Tarpon Beach. Once their device began tracking miles, they made their way down the west end of the island before 7 a.m.
As the sun casted an array of colors in the backdrop, the women’s attention shifted to the sand in search of the identifiable loggerhead crawl.
The first of the morning came into view with a blue flag. The flag identified that a loggerhead was tagged by the SCCF nighttime tagging program personnel, and successfully laid a nest.
The buzz from the permitees intensified as the treasure hunt of finding the egg chamber began.
The women followed the tracks from the high tide line further up the beach to what appeared to be the egg chamber. Once a few scenarios panned out, the women bent down and very carefully began digging in search of the eggs.
Once the first egg was found the women rejoiced – the first nest of the day was recorded.
“It’s a joy to find an egg chamber,” Nolan said. “I love this. It makes me happy.”
As a permittee, the volunteers are certified to verify the nest by digging into the chamber for eggs; screening the nest to prevent predators from harming the eggs, followed by putting four stakes into the ground roped off with tape to let the public know there is a protected sea turtle nest on the beach.
Once the nest was protected, the women recorded their findings with such information as where the nest sat from the water’s edge and the dunes.
In 2000, Nolan moved to the island and a year later discovered that her neighbor was involved in the SCCF sea turtle program. From there she became a volunteer walking the beaches for about seven years.
When the opportunity presented itself to become a certified permittee, she said she “jumped on it” and has enjoyed the transition for the past eight years.
“I liked the challenge of doing more,” Nolan said of why she became a permittee. “Walking one zone I didn’t see the clear picture.”
That pure excitement of finding a loggerhead nest runs deep with all of the SCCF volunteers.
After Kerry Salatino moved to the island four years ago she began volunteering.
“I feel so fortunate because I was able to get here and get involved with the program,” she said.
Salatino began walking with other volunteers before she went solo. She instantly fell in love and the following summer began studying to become a permittee.
“It is exhilarating,” Salatino said.
Rachel Walsh, a rehabber for CROW, just started her second year as a permittee on Captiva.
“I am obsessed with sea turtles,” she said of why she began volunteering.
Walsh said learning the difference between the species – loggerhead, green and Kemps – has helped a lot for when she’s working at CROW. She said it also helps her understand the hatchlings.
“I can identify what a fire ant bite looks like, or if they are not using their flippers correctly,” Walsh said. “When we do get injured hatchlings out on patrol, I can bring them straight to CROW.”
Turtle Tracks, a program SCCF offers, ignited a new kind of passion for Jewel Jensen. She quickly found herself asking quite a few questions about sea turtles once the program concluded. Those questions turned into an invitation to stroll the third zone on the east end of Sanibel with volunteers during nesting season every Monday.
“She allowed me that whole summer to walk with her and her husband and I did that in 2010 and 2011,” Jensen said.
In 2015, SCCF Sea Turtle Coordinator Kelly Sloan asked if she wanted to become a permittee.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Of course,'” Jensen said smiling.
After attending a workshop, and spending a summer training and becoming certified, she became an official permittee in 2016.
“Every day the nests are monitored and watched closely, especially when it comes close to the hatching season. You want to make sure you are watching for little tracks,” she said.
For Mike Nabors, the ability to increase his knowledge about loggerheads is what sparked the interest in becoming, first a walker, and then a permitee about five years ago.
“It’s fascinating that there’s not a lot of information about turtles,” he said.
He travels from St. James City every Monday because he enjoys finding the nests and learning more about the sea turtle.
The permitees have assistance from “walkers” on the east end of the island.
The east end of the island is divided into six one-mile zones. Whatever they find they report to the permittee of the day, who then makes their rounds to record if there is a nest, or false crawl.
“Our volunteers and permittees pick up trash on the beach. We fill holes,” Salatino said. “The volunteers particularly on the east end, they are not only helping with the sea turtle research, but they are also helping in protecting the animal in picking up the trash. That is a huge job. We cannot thank those people enough.”
She said there is so much partnership that has to occur in the volunteer position.
“I feel a huge responsibility to do a good job, so my partners can do their good job. There is a lot of teamwork involved in what ‘this is what I saw,'” Salatino said. “This is not a volunteer job done in shifts. It is really a volunteer job done in a teamwork fashion.”
Walsh found the first nest of the season on Captiva, which she said was awesome because her friend from South Carolina, who patrols there, was with her.
The first loggerhead tracks spotted by a volunteer on Sanibel was later verified by Nolan.
“It was a thrill,” she said.
This year’s nesting season is off to a good start.
Monday, May 8, Salatino found two nests on Captiva.
“It is so fun. It’s exhilarating and fun to find the nest and analyze whether you think she laid eggs, or not,” she said. “Then dig and find the eggs and then stake it off. You know then you are also protecting an endangered animal and the possibility of it hatching and making it out to the sea. The whole reason we are doing this is to protect the animal.”
Salatino refers her volunteer work to a “treasure hunt.”
“I link it to a treasure hunt because you are out there and you never know what the animal did the night before,” she said.
Last Monday, May 8, Jensen filled in for another permittee on the west end of the island, which resulted in seeing her first crawl of the season.
“It was a beautiful day. The night crew was out last night and they had three flags out, meaning they had seen three crawls,” Jensen said. “It was quite exciting because it was the first nest I had seen this year.”
Although it’s not perfect science, loggerhead nests typically hatch 55 days after it is laid. Once the nests near the 40 day mark, the permittees start closely monitoring the nests.
Jensen said 72 hours after a nest hatches, permittees go back and do an inventory.
“My favorite part is hatching season and seeing the baby hatchlings go out to the water. Or to see an empty nest knowing most of them hatched and hopefully made it out to the water,” Walsh said. “But, the reason I love doing it is protecting them more. I would say that is why I do it.”
The inventory consists of counting the broken shells of the hatchlings, as well as those that did not hatch. Nolan said every once in a while they will find a live sea turtle that was not able to make its way out. She said they are able to release the baby sea turtle on the beach if there are no birds and it’s before 9 a.m. If neither of those work, the sea turtles are released at night.
“If it is before 9 a.m. we can immediately release because the hatchlings have the best success of getting out far enough away where the predators don’t get them,” Salatino said. “The odds decrease significantly on them making it if they go out after 9. So, we would hold them until the cover of darkness and release them at night. To watch them paddle out to the water is just exhilarating.”
Many of the volunteers give up their time in hopes of educating the public.
“I brought the sea turtles to Lake Forest, Illinois,” Jensen said.
In 2015, through a collaborative effort Jensen developed an ocean unit at the school with a primary focus on kindergarteners. Sloan spent time Skyping with the students, which turned into the youngsters raising money on their own to adopt a sea turtle nest.
“Last week because they are doing the ocean unit even though I am not there, I Skyped with them on the beach for the first nest and now they are raising money to adopt more sea turtle nests,” Jensen said.
Salatino said she believes part of their job as a permittee is to educate the public on sea turtles, which results in further protecting the sea turtle.
“There was a little girl, she was in second grade today,” she said last Monday. “That was an opportunity to educate someone who might grow up to have a degree in marine biology, and if not just to appreciate it.”
One of the rare perks of their volunteerism is seeing a loggerhead sea turtle in action.
For Jensen that occurred on a Tuesday on the east end of Sanibel, and the other on a Saturday on Captiva, last season. She also went out at night with the tagging program night crew and saw another loggerhead in action.
“Just to see the process,” Jensen said was exciting.
Unfortunately, the loggerhead Walsh saw was in trouble. The loggerhead traveled to the pool area and parking lot of one of the Captiva cottages.
“By the time we found her she was just getting back to the water. So all night she was walking. So when we got out there, 7:30, 8, she was just going to the water,” Walsh said. “She was exhausted, but she made it back to the water.”