Celebrating 40 years of sea turtle research

June 14, 2022

With nesting season underway, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Sea Turtle Research and Monitoring Project is celebrating its 40th Anniversary. The program was established to assist in the recovery of threatened and endangered sea turtle populations, which were in a state of decline. The objectives were to protect nests from predators like raccoons, ghost crabs, armadillos, hogs, coyotes, and opossums and to gain insights into the life history of these animals that nest on Keewaydin Island. This project has grown into one of the longest continuously running sea turtle monitoring programs of its kind in the U.S.

The Conservancy’s sea turtle program began in earnest during the summer of 1983 on Keewaydin Island and has occurred annually ever since. Over the years, researchers have documented more than 8200 nests and helped over 380,000, primarily loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings, make it to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, from 1994 to 2018, the Conservancy monitored the Naples City Beach in a partnership with Collier County and documented over 2000 nests, producing over 116,600 hatchlings.

Since only one in 1,000 sea turtles survives to adulthood, each individual that makes it safely to the Gulf is significant to their survival. While there are signs of recovery, six of the seven species of sea turtles worldwide are still considered threatened or endangered.

In Florida, there is no clear evidence that the loggerhead population is recovering, but on Keewaydin, overall nesting is trending upward, so Conservancy efforts appear to be making an impact. “We are likely seeing some of the original hatchlings coming back to nest,” says Kathy Worley, Conservancy’s Environmental Science Director. 

For the past 30 years, Conservancy biologists were visited periodically by one mother loggerhead, “Emily”. The team has spotted “Emily” 13 times since she was first flipper-tagged in 1988, with the latest in 2019. Emily’s unfailing return to nest on Keewaydin lends credence to the long-term fidelity sea turtles have to a specific nesting beach. Emily has helped the Conservancy learn more about sea turtle biology and even foraging grounds via satellite telemetry. In all, she has laid roughly 4,878 eggs on Keewaydin. Long-term data of this kind is difficult to come by because it takes patience and persistence by sea turtle biologists and the Conservancy’s dedication to being in the game for the long haul.

Interns measuring and documenting a loggerhead sea turtle nesting on Keewaydin Island

For Dave Addison, a Senior Biologist who joined the sea turtle program in 1990, Emily’s story is truly remarkable. He did not fully appreciate how persistent sea turtles are until he observed parts of Emily’s life for 30 years. Addison adds, “No matter how many years go by or how mundane the work may seem at times, there will always be moments where the turtles or the island shows you something you’ve never seen before — that’s the hook and what keeps me coming back.”

In addition to monitoring nesting activity, preventing predation by resident wildlife, and tagging the turtles for identification and tracking, the Conservancy conducts cooperative research with partner agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities to gain insight into the life history of sea turtles.

Why we do this critical work

The more that is understood about these animals, the better they can be protected. For example, over the years, the Conservancy has collected DNA for the University of Georgia and collaborated with the State and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) on different satellite telemetry studies to determine inter-nesting and post-nesting migration patterns of loggerhead and green sea turtles.

Also, by conducting a long-term nest temperature study with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to predict the sex of the hatchlings on Keewaydin Island, the data collected has revealed that the island produces more males compared to other beaches in Florida, essentially aiding in the future reproduction of the endangered species.

Now, the team is back at it again satellite tagging loggerheads in collaboration with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission – tagging turtles that they’ve already tracked during previous studies to see if they are showing long-term foraging site fidelity and if not, where are they going now. These and other collaborative projects are important, as they help to determine viable species recovery initiatives. Additionally, the Conservancy’s sea turtle program is a training ground for future biologists, with more than 130 interns trained so far, many who have gone on to continue working with sea turtles.

Through the years, the sea turtle program has been supported by philanthropy, which provides the Conservancy with the boats to get to the island, ATVs needed to daily transverse the seven-mile expanse on Keewaydin beaches, not to mention all of the project equipment required to measure and tag the turtles and protect their nests. The field station on Keewaydin that keeps equipment and provides shelter for the staff, was rebuilt in 2017 and named the David S. Addison Sea Turtle Field Research Station.

Without donor support, this important project cannot continue to thrive. Please visit conservancy.org/fundscience/  to support the Conservancy’s sea turtle program and continue to aid sea turtles like Emily.