From Dusk to Dawn, LMC Conducts Research Surveys To Protect and Monitor Nesting and Hatchling Sea Turtles
From March 1st to October 31st, Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s (LMC) researchers spend 244 days and nights monitoring one of the most densely nested sea turtle beaches in the world during their research surveys; their days and nights are long, but their work is worth it. In 2019, the research team documented 20,998 nests, which produced an estimated 1.35 million hatchling sea turtles.
In order to monitor 9.5-miles of densely nested beach, our researchers split their efforts into morning and night survey programs. Our morning researchers spend their time documenting and recording sea turtle tracks, nests, and nest emergences. Our night researchers spend their time measuring nesting sea turtles, taking blood samples, and tagging all encountered mothers. For over forty years, our researchers have worked to protect our local nesting and hatching sea turtle population.
A New Challenge
Each season, they are faced with different obstacles, such as storms and hurricanes. However, this nesting season, COVID-19 threw them a curve ball. Due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in the United States, officials decided to close local beaches and parks. “When we were informed that the beaches were closing due to COVID-19, we agreed with the decisions that were made, but were worried about not being able to monitor and protect nesting sea turtles,” said Dr. Justin Perrault, Director of Research at LMC.
Because LMC works with endangered and threatened species under permits from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), our researchers were given permission to continue to conduct their research efforts, but with a smaller than usual staff. “Luckily, we are still able to continue our efforts this season and conduct research on nest temperatures, beach armoring, and sea turtle health,” commented Dr. Perrault. “Conducting our research efforts with a smaller staff proves to be challenging at times, however we feel extremely privileged to continue our conservation efforts and to be able to share the beach with some of Earth’s last living dinosaurs.”
From Dusk to Dawn
During morning and nighttime research surveys, LMC researchers monitor and document nesting encounters for the purpose of providing greater protection for our coastal friends. And the tasks built into these day-to-day procedures resemble anything but a slowdown. As told by our Research Department, this is what their morning and nighttime routine looks like for sea turtle nesting surveys:
Morning Research Surveys
With coffee or tea in hand, Jen Reilly, LMC’s Research Operations Manager arrives at the Center about 30-40 minutes prior to sunrise to get ready. Leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles are the three species that regularly nest within the 9.5-mile survey area encompassing Juno, Jupiter-Carlin and Tequesta beaches. Jen and her colleagues collect all the supplies and equipment necessary to complete surveys, including ATVs, GPS units, saddlebags, stakes, towels, water, sunscreen, and clipboards with datasheets. The datasheets consist of survey data forms, nest check sheets and nest fate sheets.
Once Jen and her team are on the beach, they begin surveys at one of the designated zone markers placed on each of the three beaches. Each beach is divided into numbered zones. On the datasheets, she reports any notable rain events from the night before, or during the survey, as well as wind direction and sea height. As her team starts driving along the high water line, they record each crawl they come across with GPS units and mark a portion of nests for evaluation.
To mark a nest for evaluation, nest and dune stakes are set in place. Measurements are then taken of the distance to the high water line and to the toe of the dune before recording the location of the nest with GPS units. The marked nests will then be monitored on a daily basis until they hatch.
After each observation, morning surveyors conduct nest checks on marked nests and documents any activity or information (e.g., hatchling emergence, predation, washover, human tampering, disorientation due to artificial lighting). If a nest has hatched, they wait for three days before excavating the nest to allow the nest to hatch as naturally as possible. Then they will take inventory of the contents of the nest (e.g., how many eggs hatched, how many eggs did not hatch).
Upon returning to the office, all contributors will enter their morning survey data into a main database to be verified by a staff member. When they have completed data entries and verification’s, supplies, equipment and new datasheets are prepared and re-stocked for the next morning survey.
Nightime Research Surveys
When the clock strikes 9 p.m., LMC’s Director of Research, Dr. Justin Perrault, and Senior Manager of Research and Data, Sarah Hirsch, report to the research laboratory for their nightly surveys. The night begins as they take their ATV’s (with red headlights) to monitor two separate areas: north to the Jupiter Inlet and south to the northern tip of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. With a thoroughly checked supply list, including water, red headlamps, tags, measuring tape, needles, blood collection devices and biopsy punches, they are ready to patrol local beaches!
In a matter of 15 minutes, their eyes quickly adjust to identify sea turtle tracks and if they belong to a nesting leatherback, loggerhead or green turtle. However, approaching a nesting female must be responsibly performed by professional personnel who understand sea turtle nesting stages and best practices. With their expertise, LMC researchers can pinpoint which of the seven stages the nesting mother is in (e.g., egg laying, rear flipper covering, front flipper covering) to tactfully approach her at her most docile point, and by army crawling from behind to avoid startling the turtle back into the ocean.
During this time, Justin, Sarah and their team check for external tags on the females’ flippers, which have unique numbers to identify returning turtles or turtles that have been marked elsewhere. Because the external tags can fall out over time (similar to losing an earring), LMC also uses Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, which are the equivalent to a microchip used on cats and dogs. If the turtle has tags, the team can look her up in the database and know when and where she was originally tagged and how many times we have seen her since her original encounter.
This year, the Research Department has already encountered two leatherbacks: the first named “Mola” who was originally tagged in 2003, and the second named “Storm” who was originally tagged in 2012. Mola has been seen more than ten times at LMC survey sites since 2003, including twice in 2018. New tags and names are administered with creative naming themes ranging from goddesses to constellations and even pop stars!
Per LMC’s research projects, the night crew collects samples of blood or a quick skin biopsy during the egg laying process. This time is also used to conduct exams that evaluate the size of the turtle and document any external signs of injury. Once all the data and samples are collected from an individual turtle, Justin, Sarah and their groups jump back on the ATVs and head out in search of another turtle. Samples are collected throughout the night until all necessary samples have been collected, which can last until 3:00 to 4:00 a.m, or later.
While the beaches and parks are closed, LMC’s researchers will continue to monitor and protect nesting and hatching sea turtles with a limited staff. Long days and nights await our research team, but their dedication to help restore hope for these animals motivates them.
Monitoring one of the most densely populated sea turtle nesting beaches in the world means that our researchers’ data and studies can help change the trajectory for threatened and endangered sea turtles. Four over four decades, our researchers have used and continue to use their scientific data to help guide officials, collaborators and sustainability experts in improving conditions for sea turtles. “A keystone species, sea turtles are vital to maintaining the balance of our ecosystems,” noted Reilly. “Sea turtle research helps us evaluate and assess the latest nesting trends among different species to develop conservation measures to protect them.”
Although many aspects of the world have been placed on pause recently, our researchers will continue to protect our local nesting sea turtle population and continue to advance conservation measures. Inspired by sea turtles resilient nature, our research team pushes forward through long days and nights to ensure our nesting sea turtles are in caring and innovative hands. As the sea turtle nesting season progresses, our morning and night survey teams will keep the public informed through two weekly blog posts.
If you discover a sick, injured or stranded sea turtle, please call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (*FWC) or LMC’s Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline at 561-603-0211.
One Mission. At Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) we strive to be industry leaders in sea turtle and ocean conservation. Our work is focused on four core pillars, each focused on demonstrating measurable impact. Our team researches and conserves sea turtles, because sea turtles tell us the health of the ocean, which in turn tells us the health of our planet. These critical indicator species serve as our global ambassadors for ocean conservation. In this blog, we invite you to dive into the depths of ocean conservation and explore our research efforts.
Our PhD lead research biologists monitor one of the most densely nested loggerhead sea turtle beaches in the world. Through our comprehensive datasets and innovative studies, we are able to determine threats affecting the health of our sea turtles, oceans and ultimately us. Our research and datasets are invaluable not only to scientists, but also to local, national and international coastal managers. Donate to propel our mission and save sea turtles at: marinelife.org/onemission.
Lauren Eissey, Public Relations and Engagement Specialist