STORIES BY KYLIE KIDD

Inspiring Conservation and Education with the Mickler’s Beach Turtle Patrol

Published: Oct. 16, 2020

High tides, beach erosion and people are the major things impacting sea turtles this year along the first coast. 

Nests have been washed out to sea, killing the hatchlings inside as part of beach erosion. Trash washes up all along the coast – the most dangerous being plastic. 

Sea turtle in recovery at the Sea Turtle Hospital at UF Whitney lab, Marineland. Photo by Kylie Kidd.

“It gets ingested, it gets wrapped around their necks, they get tangled in it and then can’t swim. All trash is bad,” said Pookie Fox, a six-year veteran of the Mickler’s Beach Turtle Patrol. 

Mickler’s Beach Turtle Patrol has been watching over Ponte Vedra Beach since the 80s. 

Fox and her fellow volunteers at the Mickler’s Beach Turtle Patrol wake up at sunrise each day to walk their assigned strip of Ponte Vedra Beach in search of sea turtle nests and trash. 

“To be involved in turtle patrol you have to first have the interest in wanting to make a difference,” said Fox. 

The hands-on portions of the patrol include digging up nests after they’ve hatched and evaluating them. For that portion, volunteers attend two certification classes led by the Fish and Wildlife Commission through the state of Florida. 

Besides evaluating and collecting data, turtle patrol marks off the nests using precise measurements. All nests also have a stake farther up in the dunes, just in case the other stakes get washed away. GPS location is also used to mark the “clutch,” or collection of turtle eggs. 

When volunteers walk the beach in the morning, they look for new nests and check on the previously marked nests. An indication of a new nest is turtle tracks leading to and from the ocean.

“Those tracks, and the style of them, tells us what type of turtle that track came from,” said Fox. 

After finding a new nest, science becomes involved. A single egg is taken from the clutch of loggerheads and sent to the University of Georgia for DNA testing.

“They can now track the female turtle’s nesting process through the DNA in that egg. Female turtles nest multiple times a year,” said Fox.

After the nest has hatched, the volunteers dig up the egg cases and count them to use in their data collection. 

Sometimes baby turtles get left in the nest and are unable to get out, these are called pips. Turtle patrol makes sure the pips are healthy. Then, they let the pips crawl to the ocean themselves.

COVID-19 has impacted turtle patrol. Instead of multiple people walking a section of beach, it is just one person. This allows for social distancing. 

Two people are needed when a nest is evaluated and so are masks, as sometimes staying socially distant is hard. Also, the evaluations are not open to the public right now.

It is very important to the Mickler’s Beach Sea Turtle Patrol that beaches are protected so turtles have somewhere to nest. 

“Take care of your trash,” Fox repeated several times when asked how we can help. “Adult turtles eat jellyfish as part of their diet, plastic supermarket bags floating in the water look just like jellyfish, this leads turtles to ingest them.”

One in 1,000 turtles make it to adulthood – about 1%.

“If we don’t take care of them, they will disappear,” said Fox. “People need to know how to protect the beaches, so we don’t lose this beautiful species of marine animal.”