Through her internship with NOAA, Anna Windle is researching and protecting the nests of loggerhead sea turtles and working every day in the natural beauty of a remarkable estuary.
There's a moment, on an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, when the soft white sand under Anna Windle's carefully digging hands suddenly sinks a little. That moment always catches her breath, because she knows she's about to see a small wonder: a loggerhead sea turtle's nest.
"There's an air pocket where the egg chamber is, so then you dig just a little more, and you see the eggs," she says. "It's always fun to be the one to dig."
Through her summer internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Windle is spending 10 weeks at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a pristine, 110,000-acre habitat of mangrove forest and lagoons, canals, and creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands. Open water habitats comprise 70,000 acres, and this is where Windle—an environmental science major with minors in biology and anthropology—is spending most of her time. She's been living on Goodland at the reserve's field station, traveling by boat each day to remote areas like Cape Romano to conduct research.
Article from Washington College, July 2015
While on turtle patrol we see all sorts of really neat wildlife. Here are a few of our favorite encounters so far.
When heading out to patrol Cape Romano, we take the back water out of Goodland until we reach Helen Key where we pick up the channel that leads us to the first beach. At this same spot for a few days in a row we saw the most sharks in one place either of us had ever encountered. When first approaching we weren't sure what we were seeing. Once we got closer we realized it was a group of at least a dozen nurse sharks, each being between six and seven feet long! Later we were told that they congregate at this time of year for mating. We have spotted a couple others along our route on turtle patrol as well.
Sea turtles are not the only animals that nest during the summer. They share the beach this time of year with shore birds as well. These include skimmers, terns, and plovers. There are two places along our route for turtle patrol that have nesting shorebirds. Today while walking the northern section of Kice Island we saw a baby least tern! It is important when near one of the posted bird areas to watch your step for chicks since they blend in with the sand quite easily!
Other wildlife we have seen include: manatees, dolphins, tarpon, and JUMPING stingrays. Last but not least we have even seen sea turtles come up for air at the surface of the water while driving along in the boat! This made us so happy since we only come out in the mornings and investigate what they did the night before.
In my first week of turtle patrol, we had our very first nest! The "cold front" we'd had in the days prior came with west winds and large rolling waves making it difficult to survey certain sections of our route. With Monday being a perfect day on the water we were able to get to the areas that we previously could not. Jill and I found this nest on northern tip of Morgan Beach. We believe the nest was a few days old already because we only saw a short, faded out crawl track that did not reach the high tide line from the day before. We followed it and found a fluffy area right behind it, leading us to believe it was a nest. With only this to go off of we were not exactly sure where the turtle crawled up the beach. You can typically predict where the eggs are based on the in and out crawl. After a little bit of digging around I located the eggs! Success! We collected all necessary information and then put a wire cage around the clutch to deter any predators, such as raccoons. Other neat sightings this week included dolphins, manatees, and even a three foot sawfish!
Sea Turtle Intern
Rookery Bay Reserve is pleased to welcome our first sea turtle intern of the 2015 season, Sarah Norris. Sarah will be leading the Cape Romano sea turtle program and scheduling the volunteers.
Sarah graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in May 2013 and plans to return in the fall to begin working on her Master's degree. While enrolled at FGCU she had the opportunity to work with Dr. Phil Allman and conduct nesting surveys in Ghana. She has also had sea turtle nesting internships with Mote Marine and the Conservancy of SW Florida.
We will also have another intern through the Five College Coastal & Marine Sciences NOAA Internship Program starting towards the end of May. This is a 10-week internship offered and funded through NOAA. Anna Windle will be a senior at Washington College (in Maryland) next fall and plans to continue to grad school after she graduates. She had the opportunity to spend last summer in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for one of her college courses. She hasn't had the chance to work with sea turtles yet so she's excited to spend the summer here.
The interns will be sharing their adventures and findings as field notes and will also make a presentation at the end of the summer season.
This past week had a slow start - or no start at all. Sunday and Monday were too stormy to go out in the boats, and of course we don't patrol on Tuesdays. Needless to say, after that the activity escalated quickly; we had 7 false crawls on Wednesday, a couple of nests Thursday, and actually saw a turtle laying eggs on Friday! I missed out on that because I was GPS-ing nests on keewaydin with Jill but I can only imagine how amazing it was (although a little concerning as it happened at 10 am). Saturday we had more volunteers than usual, so of course we had no activity for them to see. But the week culminated in an amazing event: we helped release over 100 hatchlings on Marco beach Sunday night. It was absolutely spectacular, and I even got to pick a few of them up. They were so cute I almost didn't want to let them go!
Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to join the sea turtle interns at the Conservancy of South West Florida on a night patrol of Keewaydin Island. I was so excited because even though I am out on the boat almost every day monitoring sea turtle activity, I had never actually seen a sea turtle before (aside from the occasional maybe-a-turtle-head off in the distance taking a breath before quickly disappearing again). After a regular morning of patrolling the Cape Romano beaches, I prepared to head out for night patrol. I arrived at Shell Island Road at 8pm, excitedly wondering whether or not I would see my first sea turtle that night. Right off the bat I realized how grateful I was that I had been warned about how many more mosquitos I would encounter on night patrol vs. day patrol, because had I not dressed accordingly I would have been absolutely covered in bites from head to toe. After I was handed a headlamp with red-light, not white-light because it can disorient the turtles, we were ready to head out to the beach. The interns at Keewaydin Island drive ATVs up and down the beach looking for fresh turtle crawls out of the ocean. If they find a crawl with an entrance, but no exit, then they know that there is a turtle on the beach that is thinking about nesting. As I was riding on the back of one of the ATVs it was hard not to think that every stump and every piece of drift wood ahead of me was a turtle coming out of the ocean, thankfully the interns know the beach like the back of their hand and are not fooled by turtle-sized stumps. The next thing I knew, we saw a crawl with an entrance but no exit! We hopped off the ATV and quietly went to see if the turtle was nesting or not. Unfortunately at that exact moment, someone came noisily driving down the beach on an ATV with white light, stopped to see what we were looking at, and yelled loudly in excitement about seeing the turtle. With all of this sudden excitement around her, it was no surprise that the turtle quickly turned around and left the beach without nesting. Even though my first turtle sighting was somewhat interrupted, it was still an unforgettable moment and I couldn't wait to see another one! We continued driving up and down the beach until around 6am. In that time I was able to see 2 turtles nest, plus the turtle that had false crawled earlier in the night came back onto the beach and managed to nest (thankfully this time with no interruptions)! Seeing my first sea turtle is an experience that I will never forget, and hopefully it is just the beginning of a long future of sea turtle sightings!
Friday of this week was a day of pure excitement! After I dropped off the volunteers to walk the first stretch of Blind Pass, I proceeded like I normally do and maneuvered the boat around the sandbar and waited for the volunteers to meet up with me on the other side. The next thing I knew, one of my volunteers came running down the beach frantically waving his arms. At first I was worried that someone had gotten hurt, but soon I was able to make out the excited words of "There is a turtle nesting, right now, on the beach!" I didn't quite believe what he was saying; it was 10am after all, and a highly irregular time to find a turtle that usually nests in the dark of night, on the beach. I quickly anchored the boat and followed the volunteer, and there was in fact a nesting turtle on the beach! She was in the process of depositing her eggs into the egg chamber she had dug, so we stood back and watched as with each twitch of her rear flippers she added more eggs to her clutch. After she finished nesting, camouflaging her nest and crawling her way back down the beach and into the ocean, we sprang into action and started our regular routine of caging the nest. Watching the turtle deposit her eggs certainly made them easier to find! Friday is definitely a day I will never forget, and I am now more than excited to see this nest hatch out!
Well another week has gone by and, yes, I am officially a professional boat driver! Ok, maybe not quite up to senior level, but I'm working on it! This week I was lucky enough to go with Greg Curry, the Reserve's Resource Management Specialist, to the Ten Thousand Islands. It was awesome to have a change of scenery (although I was totally lost, and just when I finally got the Cape Romano route down!). New area = new beaches = NEW TURTLES!! I finally got to see a green turtle nest and I was so excited! Man those turtles really like to confuse you. First of all, this girl crawled ALL over the beach - took me almost 20 minutes to rake out her crawl. Not to mention the fact that the nest itself was massive, as you can see in the photo. There was sand everywhere around the giant pit she dug for herself. Needless to say, it was an awesome experience, and I can't wait to go back there. The rest of the week entailed more Kice & Cape Romano turtling, totaling 18 nests for the week. Good news- none of them were depredated! Although this is most likely because we haven't been finding many nests on Cape Romano beach itself. Our numbers still aren't quite up with last years, but hopefully this coming week we can catch up!