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As the summer slowly comes to an end I am always excited to hear about each students experience and adventures during the summer. Sam was fortunate to participate in almost all projects conducted by the lab. Below some insights into her experience this summer .

My Field Work Experience – Summer 2017 – By Sam Garrison

It was May 20th when I left the bustling city of Tallahassee and made my way down to the forgotten coast of Florida. Two hours later, I arrived at the St. Joseph Buffer Preserve to be greeted by the four interns from Florida State University: Sophia, John, Emma, and Elizabeth.

We were lucky to have in our midst one of the premiere marine turtle biologist of our region, Simona Ceriani, Ph.D., from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. In addition to Simona, we also got to work with Jenny and Ashley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who work to protect seabirds, beach mice, and other important coastal animals from further endangerment. Last but not least, the resilient professor, Dr. Mariana Fuentes, was there to welcome and guide us all. The following mornings began at 4am in order to make time for the UTV safari ride through the wilderness preserve of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. We drove all the way to the tip to begin our search for fresh marine turtle tracks. After five miles of walking, we met the others who were assigned the adjacent section of the beach. Here, Jenny made a mock nest for us to practice locating the eggs, which were just as fun to find as it was to watch Jenny mimic the tracks with her elbows and knees. Simona and Mariana gave their expert advice for locating eggs and identifying track directions. I felt especially fortunate to learn these basic skills from these knowledgeable scientists.

Shortly after spending time at St. Joseph Peninsula, I began my journey to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Fort Morgan, Alabama. Here, I met Matt Ware, a Ph.D candidate in the MTREC Group, who is investigating the necessary measures for nest relocation by recording temperature and water table fluctuations at every nest in Fort Morgan. He introduced me to my awesome new roommates Haley, Allegra, and Don. Haley was the marine turtle intern for the refuge, this was her first season ever! After a couple days of learning how to install the devices, Matt went on to help a fellow researcher tag marine turtles off the coast of Georgia. It was then my responsibility to assure that each nest was monitored appropriately. More beautiful sunrises alluded our daily patrols, this time we got to drive on the beach with the UTV. We made our way to the sand through the bumpy access called No Name Road, which received its massive protrusions from the giant vessel traffic during the BP oil spill recovery. You could see the oil and natural gas rigs from the beach, which served as a reminder of how easily human impacts can deepen. The first couple of days, there were no nests but a few false crawls. Each day we managed to pick up the trash collected by Connie, a wonderful man who walks the refuge coast daily in order to do his part in keeping the ocean clean. I’ll never forget the first time that we spotted a nest and found the eggs, which felt like trophies considering how hard they can be to find. This particular mother had crawled all the way from the sea to the top of the dune to ensure her hatchling’s survival through potential tidal fluctuations and storms. Now, I was to install the iClickers and the inundation devices next to the freshly laid eggs. We were all ecstatic to mark the first nest of the season at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

After about two weeks of installing devices in Alabama, I made my way east back to the forgotten coastline in St. George Island. It was now time to see the mother marine turtles in action. Dr. Fuentes assigned us a different section each night to walk back and forth from, until we found a false crawl or a nest. As we walked the shoreline from 10pm to 4am, our footsteps revealed the bioluminescent dinoflagellates in the sand, which seemed to reflect the milky way galaxy above us. The moon usually didn’t rise until 1am. With our red lights mostly switched off, we scanned the shorelines for tracks of loggerhead marine turtle mothers. During our walk, we also helped Emily with her research to document the human impacts that we could identify along the beach, including human presence at night and obstacles like chairs and tents. Nightly half-marathons became routine; as seashells broke beneath my toes, each turtle made it worth it. If we were lucky to find a turtle, our team leader would go check to see what stage of nesting she was in. If she was digging, we patiently waited for her to finish her job until she went into a trance to lay her eggs. This is was our window of opportunity to check her flippers for Inconel and PIT tags, take measurements of her carapace, and give her tags as needed. After we completed our tasks, we let the mother cover up her eggs and make her way back to the water, directing her if she was disoriented by beachfront house lights. With each turtle so unique, it was extraordinary to encounter them so intimately and then let go as she made her way home to sea.

Furthermore, my current field work involves marine debris accumulation on the 10 most important marine turtle nesting beaches in Northwest Florida. I recently surveyed St. Joseph Peninsula residential area as well as the state park, a true gem of beauty and diversity. I got to revisit with the interns as they took me on my favorite safari ride through the lichen covered sand pine forest to the tip of the peninsula. There is nothing quite like seeing the sun rise over the broad horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. As I walked, I documented every piece of trash I could find. Whether a soda bottle or a small piece of foam, I was surprised to find so much brought in from the currents at the state park. Unexpectedly, the residential area was significantly cleaner but had plenty of smaller plastic pieces among the rack lines that may normally go unnoticed. From first light to sun down, I slowly walked up and down the beaches among snowy plovers, ospreys, and least terns. Seabird chicks were fledging as their mothers went out to the Gulf to bring them their next fish, I tried to keep my distance as this is a very sensitive time period. As I came upon people among the peninsula, I was surprised by their curiosity and interest when they saw me analyzing the rack line with a clipboard. Many made remarks like “Really? Trash, here?” others said it was the worst they’ve ever seen the peninsula. As I carried on with my survey, I met more concerned and curious beachgoers along the way.

As summer fieldwork continues, I remember each experience, each place, and each turtle uniquely. It was an honor to have been able to participate in these adventures. Experiencing the field has me very excited to find out further analyses of the results we gathered, as these study areas were once my reality. I will cherish my time spent in all of these amazing places, and with each person I encountered along the journey. My personal investment in the field this summer has given me an enlightening understand of the amount of hard work that goes into conservation science. It is safe to say that this work is not easily accomplished without passion and dedication.