There are many words that come to mind when I reflect on my fieldwork experience this summer with the Marine Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group at Florida State University; including, but not limited to, the following: rewarding, exhausting, learning, connecting, and unforgettable.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I first arrived at St. George Island. I was told that we would be walking a lot and our feet would hurt, and I hoped that I wouldn’t get too tired. I arrived early in the day to collect data on coastal construction with Kristen, a graduate student. We began walking the stretch of beach at the state park, and a few minutes later I saw my first ever loggerhead tracks. Kristen explained which tracks were from the turtle heading up the beach and which were from her heading back to the ocean. The nest had already been marked, probably that morning. I was excited and hoped to see a turtle leave its tracks first-hand that night.
After walking around 10 miles on the beach for around 4 hours, and having not eaten anything that day, I began to feel very exhausted. I went to the house to rest and hoped that I had what it would take to do that amount of walking each night for the next 10 nights. I was given that night off to rest and prepare for the next night.
On my first night of surveying, I saw my first nesting turtle. I had only seen live marine turtles twice before, and both times they were hatchlings. The first time was in Ft. Lauderdale – on a nighttime beach walk with my family we happened to see a couple of hatchlings making their way into the ocean. The second time was on Panama City Beach on a nighttime turtle walk – after a while looking for hatchlings but striking out, we were making our way back to the house we were staying in when we witnessed volunteers releasing dozens of hatchlings from buckets and coolers. (They had hatched in the middle of the day on a crowded beach.)
But this was the first time I had seen an adult female marine turtle in person. From a distance, she looked like turtles I had seen in videos. But when I got closer, I saw her eyes, heard her breathing, and felt her determination. Her movements were so methodical. I watched Anthony, the graduate student I was with, hurry to get all of the data on her. I wanted to help, but couldn’t do much yet, as this was my first time seeing how to take all of the measurements, etc. When we were done, we watched her make her way back and slowly disappear beneath the crashing waves.
One of my favorite parts of this trip was connecting with the people I was working with. We had different people coming and going, from different parts of the country and the world, such as South Africa, Venezuela, and France. Being in groups with different people each night, we had plenty of time (about 6 hours) while walking to talk and get to know each other. I especially enjoyed discussing culture and language with some of the people from other countries; I was able to practice my Spanish with Hector and even learn a little French with the help of Jonathon. Sometimes there was singing, and when we would pause to take a break, we all would take in the sound of the waves crashing, the feel of the night air, and the beauty of the moon.
Georgina is the name I gave to the first turtle I tagged, after St. George Island. Hector told me I needed to do it fuerte, and that I had to name her and remember her flipper tag numbers (MML208 and MML209).
While collecting data for my study on human impacts on nesting marine turtles, we recorded data on all of the people we saw at night on the beach – most of their activity was early on our nightly patrol (9 PM – midnight). Some of them talked to us about what we were doing, and something that I noticed was that a lot of them seemed to care about the marine turtles and not want to disturb them, but many of them had no idea that bright white lights can discourage them. We even spoke with a family who had seen a female crawl up the beach, taken flash photographs of her, and then wondered why she turned around and returned to the ocean without nesting. This is a reason why more advertising against white lights on the beach is needed.
There are many aspects of this trip that I will remember, from sore feet, falling asleep in the car on the way back to the house at 4 AM (I wasn’t driving!), dancing on the porch, family-style dinners, bioluminescence, temporary tattoos, drinking lots of Gatorade, learning a lot, drinking coffee at 9 PM, trying to dodge the waves from hitting our feet, singing on the beach, to getting a flipper-full of sand in the face by a turtle (unintentionally, of course). But one of my fondest was when I was tasked with calming down the turtle and getting her to stop moving around so that data could be collected. I got in front of her and covered her eyes, pet her shell and saw the glow of bioluminescence. I even spoke to her, hoping to calm her down, saying things like “shh, it’s okay, that’s alright, you’re doing great.” She let out a great sigh and rested for a minute while I was next to her and I felt her exhaustion. I didn’t know I could relate so much to a turtle. We stayed there for a minute and breathed together, and from then on I was called, by some of my fellow researchers, the turtle whisperer.