In 1969, volunteers monitored Longboat Key's beaches for the first time and counted nine nests. Now, the group works under Mote's permit and focuses on educating the public.
All it took was a little hatchling to crawl out from under Kit Fernald’s beach chair.
That’s how the Longboat Key Turtle Watch was born.
Fifty years ago, after the tiny turtle waved a flipper to Fernald, a small group of residents began monitoring Longboat’s beach for more nests. In 1969, the group counted a total of nine.
Fifty years later, following the implementation of laws and ordinances and an increase in sea turtle awareness, the Longboat Key Turtle Watch is growing in both membership and outreach efforts.
Today, the group focuses a lot of its efforts on educating the public. From public walks and nest excavations in the summer to passing out posters and fliers to resorts on Longboat Key, the group’s efforts have expanded in recent years.
But to see how far the group has come, it’s important to look back on its work.
At first the group tried staking the nests, similarly to what volunteer members do now, but back then there was no fire ban on the beach, and people would steal the stakes to serve as kindling.
So, in 1970, the group contacted the Florida Department of Natural Resources for information on how to monitor sea turtles.
They got a permit and were advised to perform best-practice activities that now are illegal and considered detrimental to turtle survival. For instance, members who found nests would remove the eggs to a cooler and allow them to hatch on their back porches or lanais. From there, members would often lead the turtles to the surf with a flashlight or they’d make a hatchery.
As scientific understanding began shaping new turtle protection rules, the Longboat Key Turtle Watch continued its efforts. In 1973, the federal Endangered Species Act was passed, which aided the Turtle Watch in its conservation efforts. It takes about 25 years for turtles to sexually mature, and in 1999, there were 188 turtle nests just on the Manatee County end of Longboat Key – an increase from the nine nests on the whole island in 1969.
Additionally, The Longboat Key Turtle Watch, which is funded mostly through donations, helped the town pass various ordinances that helped turtles, specifically the fire ban and lighting ordinances. The group was also instrumental in helping mandate turtle exclusion devices, mechanism built into fishing nets that allow turtles to escape drowning.
In 1980, Mote Marine Laboratory approached Turtle Watch Founder Orville Clayton for information on how he and the group monitored turtle nests. Mote wanted to start its Sea Turtle Conservancy program, so Clayton turned the Sarasota County portion of Longboat over to the lab. In 2005, the Turtle Watch merged with Mote and has since worked under the laboratory’s permit.
When the group became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2002 and partnered with Mote in 2005, the group shifted from a social one to a more scientific one.
“It was a bunch of folks who lived on the beach, primarily retired folks, that went and did these things, and then we started this much more rigorous data collection,” Turtle Watch President Tim Thurman said.
But still, as membership has grown, the group has stayed close-knit and focused on its mission.
“We come from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, political beliefs even, differences in education, and yet we share in common a love for saving turtles, and it has created some great friendships,” said Connie Schindewolf, who has been with the Turtle Watch since the early ’80s.
Keep on swimming
The group recently redid its bylaws and reordered the mission statement wording to highlight its top priorities — education and awareness.
Previously, beach activities, such as monitoring nests, were listed first. Monitoring is still important to the group, but education gives members the chance to reach a new audience, and perhaps, even the next generation of Turtle Watch volunteers.
“I know people who I’ve seen over the years where it’s been parents with little children now with grandchildren and they come to the same place just for vacation, but they feel like they’re part of us because for those few weeks or a month, they participate,” member Freda Perrotta said.
Thurman said that over the years, it’s been more than the Turtle Watch volunteers who have saved turtles: It has become a community effort.
“Once you tell them (about turtles), 99% of people are energized and excited, so it keeps you wanting to go and educate and be on the beach,” he said.
From the Sea Turtle Defender Program, which allows kids aged 2 to 18 to attend nest excavations and behind-the-scenes tours at Mote, to hosting turtle walks in the summer, the group tries to reach all ages.
Recently, the group took over third-, fourth- and fifth-grade
science classes at Emma Booker Elementary School to teach students all about turtles. They gave Powerpoint presentations and showed videos before students broke out in small groups for various activities, including holding a carapace, the upper portion of a turtle shell, and answering quiz questions, such as how many eggs are typically in a nest (100-120).
Along with continuing educational efforts, the group is going to continue its relationship in working with the town, such as increasing funding for the “Flip a Switch, Make a Move” campaign that the group kicked off last year.
And through it all, the group will continue to monitor the Manatee County portion of Longboat Key. Although nesting season doesn’t technically start until May 1, the group started patrolling April 15, just in case any turtles arrive early.
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