“Excuse me ma’am, do you work for Google?” It isn’t an unreasonable question. I look strange walking on the beach amongst all the vacationers. I am covered head to toe in clothing to minimize sun damage, wearing a backpack, and carrying a clipboard and photo equipped GPS. I explain to him that I am a Graduate student at Florida State University conducting a study to document the exposure of marine turtle nesting grounds to coastal construction. I was also asked “are you the turtle lady?” a lot. Well yes, I am A turtle lady, but I am not the turtle lady for this beach. I then answer a few questions about turtles, when the nests might be hatching, and mention that lights left on can disorient turtles. Hopefully my efforts will leave these people a little more knowledgeable about what they can do to minimize their impacts to nesting marine turtles and their hatchlings.
In many ways this project isn’t as exciting as others in the lab. There is no hands on turtle work with nesting females, hatchlings, or turtles in water. However, this is very important work. For this project I documented coastal construction on 35 nesting beaches in the Florida panhandle (beaches on naval air force bases were excluded due to a minimal amount of construction as well as logistical issues in gaining access). My project covered approximately 330 kilometers (205 miles) of beach to document the coastal construction that was present, and I covered most of this on foot. I took data on each coastal construction activity including a photograph and GPS location. This information is being used to verify an existing database of coastal construction permits that have been issued since 1980. This project will help us understand the exposure of marine turtle nesting grounds to coastal construction. Other studies have shown that various coastal construction may impact turtles in various ways. The construction may take up valuable nesting space if not sited well, the associated artificial lighting may disorient hatchling turtles, and turtles may become trapped by things like dune crossovers and poorly maintained sand fencing.
I did get see a turtle during my work. One morning after a thunderstorm passed through I was documenting one of the many stormwater outfalls in Panama City Beach. As I walked up to it I realized a turtle was sitting in the stream of water coming out of the outfall. It wasn’t a marine turtle though, but a freshwater turtle that was pushed out through the stormwater drain from the lake across the street. I knew that it wouldn’t be able to get back to its home, and that any other person passing by may try to assist it back into the ocean. So I carried the turtle with me until I could get back at my car and bring it back to the lake across the street.
This project was funded by a grant awarded from the Sea Turtle Grants Program. The Sea Turtle Grants Program is funded from proceeds from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate. Learn more at www.helpingseaturtles.org.