For Sea Turtle World day, I want to share the perspective of a recently graduated student (Natalie Montero) during our nesting field season at St George Island, Florida. Working with turtles for more than 15 years, I am still inspired by watching students being enchanted by research and marine turtles and it is my hope to continue to provide this opportunity to many more in the future…
“Have you ever seen a marine turtle come out of the water in the middle of the night searching for the right place to lay her eggs?” Before this summer my answer would have been “No, but I wish!” This summer I had an incredible opportunity to walk along the beach searching for nesting marine turtles. It was crazy to me to think I have just finished my undergraduate career and soon I would be in the field assisting in research.
The beach of St. George Island was split into sections and different teams had certain sections they had to walk and monitor. The first night we saw a few old false crawls in our section and watched the sky go from pink to black to a gorgeous view of the Milky Way. After about 2 hours my body was starting to ache. Finally, one team member spotted fresh tracks! We followed them up the beach towards the dunes. I turned on my red light looking for more signs and that’s when I saw her, a huge loggerhead on top of the dune. My team backed away to give her space, but watching her made all of the pain worth it. Unfortunately, she did not nest at that time, but watching her crawl back to the ocean was pretty amazing.
A few nights later while on patrol we saw fresh tracks and followed them to a loggerhead marine turtle in the process of covering her nest. I was able to help record the data gathered when we encountered that turtle. In the nights to follow I was able to gather that data myself, which was really amazing. When we encounter a turtle we measured the carapace, tagged the turtle on each flipper and with a subcutaneous tag, and collected a skin biopsy. We gathered this data to look at the physical conditions of the nesting females on the island, to give them an identifier in case they return or someone finds them nesting elsewhere, and the biopsy is used to find where the turtles have been and what they have been eating. A couple really interesting outcomes from this work was finding a turtle that was tagged in Cape San Blas in 2002, which was the last time that turtle had been seen. We also found another turtle that was previously tagged in Sarasota in 2012.
Despite feeling tremendously sore each morning, due to walking + 13 miles a night, this trip has been incredible. I had the opportunity to watch numerous loggerhead marine turtles complete their nesting process, assist in gathering data from those turtles, be a part of important research, and bond with some pretty cool people on a beautiful island. I can’t wait to do it all again”. Natalie Montero