Research Part 2 – It’s in their blood

Although a part of Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s core, our research team often goes unnoticed. When we feature the research team, we focus on the numbers – 15, 219 loggerhead nests, 160 leatherback nests, 650 green nests. While these numbers are essential to our mission and vision, we leave the public wondering who are the faces behind recording and tracking these numbers? Our research team members – early morning riders, agents of the dark, or as the public refers to them as “turtle patrol” – dedicate their time to researching and ultimately creating a safer place for the nesting and hatching sea turtles on our beaches.

Comprised of Director of Research and Rehabilitation Dr. Charlie Manire, Research Data Manager Sarah Hirsch, Research Innovations Manager Stephanie Kedzuf and Filed Operations Manager Adrienne McCracken, all year-long research staff members. Our research team also hires needed seasonal staff to adapt to the frenzy of nesting and hatching season. With coffee in hand, this year, Samantha Colios (part 1 of this blog series) and Jennifer Reilly joined the research team as Seasonal Research Technicians.

Jen Reilly – a passionate woman dedicated to sea turtles, who will pick-up marine debris on her morning patrol until her basket can not physically hold any more.

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Reilly’s introduction to Loggerhead Marinelife Center began when she applied for and was offered the seasonal position as a Sea Turtle Nesting Field Technician in 2014. Reilly graduated from Long Island University at Southampton College with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology with a Marine concentration and from Stony Brook University with a Master of Arts in Marine Conservation and Policy, Reilly’s extensive knowledge of marine life helped gain her a seasonal position with LMC. Since 2014, Reilly has returned every nesting and hatching season. On Thursday, I joined Reilly on a ride along to find out a little more about her connection to research.

Every child that visits the center wants to know – how did you become interested in sea turtle research? I was exposed to sea turtle biology and conservation when I interviewed for and accepted a summer internship in Hawaii where I assisted a Deaf graduate student conducting her thesis research on hawksbill sea turtles and their foraging and nesting habits. There, I encountered my first hawksbill sea turtle laying her eggs on a beach in Maui – it was also my first nesting sea turtle in general. Since then, I have been actively involved in this field!

Jen Excavation

Reilly conducting a nest excavation.

You have been involved with research for several years, but exactly how long have you worked in research? I have been working for the Research Department at the LMC for 3 seasons now. Prior to my seasonal employment at LMC, I have been in and out of the research field throughout the years. I try to grab any opportunities to at least volunteer collecting data for research purposes for a few organizations, including the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation on Long Island in New York where I have spent several winter seasons collecting data on harbor seal populations in the Hempstead Bay by participating in seal watch cruises with the public.

What is something you think the public would find interesting about your job? Nest excavations… I have noticed that, in my three seasons working on our beaches, I have had the most number of people approach me as I am conducting a nest excavation. They seem to be fascinated by what we do during an excavation. They usually ask a lot of questions, starting with “what are you doing?” or “why are you taking all of those eggs out.?” I then inform them of my position and will ask them if they could wait until I am finished with the excavation (as to not make any mistakes while taking inventory = important information!) to ask more questions. During that time, they will stand from a safe distance to observe what I do during an excavation. Some of these people have paid attention well when they notice and ask about the difference in between the eggs we separate for inventory (hatched, unhatched, pipped dead, pipped live, live, dead).

Our record breaking loggerhead nesting season has kept the research team busy all summer. What does a typical work day look like for you? With coffee… Lots of coffee.  I report to work about 30-45 minutes prior to sunrise. We get our ATV’s ready and loaded up with coolers for hatchlings, clipboards (containing our survey sheets and nest checks), GPS devices, blank stakes for marking, a saddlebag filled with gloves, rangefinder, compass, a permit from the state stating we are allowed to work with nesting sea turtles and their eggs. With our ATVs, we get on our 9.5-mile stretch of beaches within 30 minutes of sunrise to begin our survey for new nests and false crawls. We mark new nests accordingly (we do not always mark every single nest laid on our beaches –we follow a “marking scheme” for this). After survey, we check on our marked nests for anything – predation, overwash, emergences, human interference, etc. We excavate nests 3 days after the initial hatch out has been observed and recorded. We also excavate nests at 70 days (for loggerheads and greens) and at 80 days (for leatherbacks) when no hatch out or emergences have been observed or recorded. As soon as we complete with our surveys, nest checks and excavations, we report back to LMC to enter all of the data into a database on the computers. When we are done with that and when we have prepared our new survey sheets and nest checks for the following day, we do our routine ATV maintenance and do whatever else needed to get done in the office before we finish for the day. During the peak of the nesting season, we would end up working on an average of 10-12 hours per shift! This is because we would have recorded high numbers of crawls and marked a good number of new nests on our beaches.

We receive several e-mails a week from supporters who want to become involved with marine life research. What advice would you give them? Gain more research and laboratory experience by volunteering or through experience in school. Get into reading and understanding scientific articles, especially with the terminology. Challenge yourself to think critically. Ask questions. Be patient, accepting and thoughtful of feedback/criticism you receive from peers and supervisors because that is how you learn and grow as you gain experience.

Jen Research Nest

Reilly marking nest stakes.

When you are researching sea turtles, do you feel like you are making a difference?  Yes, one moment stands out in particular. Last summer, I encountered a green sea turtle nesting on the beach at sunrise on Independence Day. A group of beach-goers watched in awe. As one would expect, they were concerned for the turtle as she had a rear flipper injury so it was taking her quite some time to produce an egg chamber. After informing the group on the turtle’s condition and the reason behind my close supervision upon the turtle, they were very respectful and continued to engage by asking questions about sea turtles in general. As soon as this turtle successfully returned to sea after laying her eggs, the group broke out in cheers and one of them approached me to give me an unexpected hug and thanked me profusely for allowing them to observe a sea turtle nesting (from a safe distance, of course), which they had never seen happen before and for helping educate them about the species. It was a “feel good” moment and something I will always remember.

Do you have a favorite moment from your time at LMC? Gosh, there are so many! I would have to say when I encountered a “dawn” leatherback sea turtle earlier this season – while she was nesting and then watched her orient back into the sea just as the sun was rising. I have encountered several leatherback sea turtles nesting at night, but to see one of massive size in “almost” broad daylight was really something. There are no words to describe such experience or the beauty that you see in a leatherback sea turtle for yourself. Leatherback sea turtles are the most critically endangered of all species (and the fact that this species has been around since the age of dinosaurs) so it is always special having an encounter with a leatherback up close and personal.

Why do you “give” your time to researching sea turtles? Since my internship in Hawaii, I took up the time to learn all about the seven species of sea turtles and to understand why they are endangered and how they are crucial to the environment as keystone species. The more I learn about sea turtles, the more passionate I am about taking a part in conservation efforts and to spread awareness on their current statuses.

People always seem to want to know “why sea turtles?” To you, what makes sea turtles different than other animals? Resilience. Whether they are missing a flipper or two, and whether they are fighting against rough waves, they still somehow manage to come ashore to nest. And some of them still manage to survive through all the obstacles that come their way as they travel in the big blue.

If you were only able to tell the public one thing, what would it be? I strongly encourage the public to educate themselves. As much as they may love sea turtles, it is so important for them to take the time to expand their knowledge of sea turtles by reading about different sea turtle species and to participate in outreach programs to become better acquainted with the subject of research and conservation – gaining a better understanding of what we do and why we do it is critical to sea turtle conservation for generations to come.

Jen Research Recording

Reilly recording nest information as she heads back to her ATV.

Is there anything in particular that you are researching about sea turtles that might some day help humans? I am not officially doing any research at the moment but I have always been interested in artificial lighting and how it affects nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. After I completed my internship working in the Sea Turtle Program at the Department of Environmental Management in Volusia County, Florida, I wrote my Master of Arts’ paper on artificial lighting and the policies/protocols associated with it. I learned that not each county establishes or implements lighting ordinances during a sea turtle nesting season in Florida. For example, Volusia does ban waterfront/beachfront buildings and private residences to turn off their ocean-facing exterior lights and to shield their interior lights between 9AM-6AM each season, however not every other county follows the same. Since I have learned all of that information, I have just been reading up on more articles and research.

Last question, every LMC staff member or guest who visits LMC seems to want to name a sea turtle. If you could name a sea turtle, what name would you choose and why?  “Riley” – I am Deaf and have been since birth. Since then, my family has gone out of their way, while I was growing up and still to this day, to make sure I felt nothing less than a human being, that I was not a “person with a disability.” If not for my family, I can honestly say I would not have gone as far in my academic career as I have and to be where I am today. My family (as well as my friends who I also call my family) means the world to me – I don’t take them for granted. “Riley” is a name that I would like to dedicate to my family who has taught me unconditional love and to “just keep swimming,” regardless of what is thrown my way. That is the true meaning of family, whether you are tied by blood or not. Yes, my last name is spelled Reilly but I cannot tell you how many people have misspelled our last name – Riley being the most common one. Besides, Riley has a little more feminine and a strong Irish touch to it.