By Kevin Hogencamp/Jacksonville University
An early-rising, environmentally conscious team of Jacksonville University staffers and students is helping preserve the local sea turtle population.
Every day during the sea turtle nesting season, JU volunteers meet 30 minutes before sunrise and walk a 3.5-mile stretch of Ponte Vedra Beach shoreline looking for turtle tracks and evidence of new nests from the night before. Nests are marked using stakes and tape, and are checked for human disturbances, wash-overs and attacks by predators.
For the volunteers, it’s a labor of love.
“We watch out for momma turtle tracks and if she laid eggs, we mark it off and wait for the hatchlings to emerge …” said sophomore marine science major Ciarra Slater, a California native. “We usually get to save little baby turtles who didn’t make it out. Then we watch them crawl safely to the ocean.
“It’s a really awesome experience. I absolutely love everything about it and can’t wait ‘til next season.”
The JU volunteers participate in the Ponte Vedra Beach Sea Turtle Patrol, a nonprofit project of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission Marine Turtle Program. The sea turtle patrol season runs from about May 1 to about Nov. 1, depending on when nesting begins and ends. Sea turtles are endangered and are particularly vulnerable due to human intervention, pollution and beachfront lighting, which interferes with the turtles’ natural nesting routine. The FWC estimates that only about 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood.
Lucas Meers, a 2011 JU graduate who works as the Alumni Office’s communications coordinator, said that some sea turtle nests are “false crawls,” meaning that the turtle ultimately doesn’t lay eggs in them despite coming to the shore to build the nest.
Volunteers also survey the beach an hour or two before sunset to determine how many eggs hatched.
“The remaining shells, eggs and deceased babies are buried in the nest again,” Meers said.
The survey data is shared with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which compiles sea turtling hatching information statewide.
Volunteer recruitment for the 2013 season is under way; training is in April. Volunteers must be able to walk about two miles and commit to participating in the patrol at least one morning per week.