Once on the brink of extinction, sea turtle populations throughout the Caribbean are making a comeback, thanks largely in part to one North Central Florida nonprofit, the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
As the Conservancy celebrates its 60th year, Carolina Skiff is proud to announce its partnership with the nonprofit – donating a custom-built Carolina Skiff DLX-Extra Wide to the organization. The skiff was designed to survey, capture and release sea turtles as part of a new study to examine populations, health and habitats along Florida’s Big Bend region of the Gulf Coast.
What makes the Carolina Skiff DLX-Extra Wide ideal for the Conservancy is its wide beam, flat-bottom hull and a custom-made side entry door for easy waterline pickup and release of sea turtles.
Herren and his team christened their custom-made Carolina Skiff DLX-Extra Wide as “RV Lavinia,” seen above during its maiden voyage. “RV” stands for “Research Vessel.” Photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
“[Carolina Skiff] ultimately agreed to custom build the boat that we needed,” explained David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Conservancy. “They understood what we wanted to do, they saw a role with the company in supporting this marine research and they donated the vessel to us.”
Leading the study, and often times piloting the custom-made Carolina Skiff DLX-Extra Wide, is Rick Herren, biologist, project manager and Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, who first joined the Conservancy four years ago.
Herren with a sea turtle. Photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Not your typical Ph.D. student, Herren already has more than 26 years of experience working with endangered species since obtaining his Master’s degree in Science and Biology from the University of Central Florida.
For his dissertation, Herren’s focused on documenting sea turtle populations in Florida’s Big Bend region of the Gulf Coast where there is an extensive foraging habitat. Additionally, the study, which will take two years to complete, is being conducted in a phased approach.
First, to identify particular “hot spots” of turtle activity in the Big Bend, Herren and his team of graduate students and volunteers will plot courses that run perpendicular to the coast – slowly running transects back and forth in the Carolina Skiff DLX-Extra Wide in an effort to spot turtles and record populations.
“What I want to know is, why are certain areas so attractive to juvenile Green Turtles,” questioned Herren of the study. “In those areas where we see a lot of turtles, we’re measuring the habitat itself. We’re getting in the water, looking at the sea grass, determining how healthy it is [and] what other types of things are mixed in that sea grass, like sponges or algae.”
After completing the first phase, the team will return to the more populated areas of the Big Bend to catch, document and tag sea turtles, which will then be released back into the wild.
Godfrey said the team will document the species, each turtle’s size, estimated age, sex, weight and many other factors.
The two most common species of sea turtle found in Florida’s coastal waters are the Loggerhead and Green Turtles, reports the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Known for its massive, block-like head, Loggerhead adults weigh an average of 245 pounds and have a shell of about three feet.
Green Turtles, named for their green body fat, can weigh as much as 350 pounds and grow to be more than three feet in length.
Green Turtles are found during the day in shallow flats and sea grass meadows, and return every evening to their usual sleeping areas – scattered rock ledges, oyster bars and coral reefs.
Other sea turtle species also spotted in Florida waters include Leatherbacks, Kemp’s Ridley and the small, agile Hawksbill.
Major risks to sea turtles include the commercial harvest for eggs and food, fishery bycatch, nesting beach impacts, ocean pollution and collisions with boats.
“Boat strikes on sea turtles are a significant and, unfortunately, growing problem,” he said. “It’s growing simply because there are more boats in the water and because there are more turtles in the water.”
Godfrey encourages boaters and recreational marine enthusiasts to reduce speed, especially in areas known for high sea turtle populations, and to always keep a vigilant eye out for the creatures when under power.
Another major threat against sea turtles is onshore lighting at night, especially during nesting season.
“Lighting near the shore can cause hatchlings to become disoriented and wander inland, where they often die of dehydration or predation,” reports the Conservancy on its Website conserveturtles.org. “Hatchlings, scientists believe, have an innate instinct that leads them in the brightest direction, which is normally moonlight reflecting off of the ocean.”
At the end of the day, when the Conservancy isn’t researching sea turtles (domestically and abroad), it’s focused on education and awareness, both online and at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.
“I firmly believe that people can coexist with wildlife,” said Godfrey. “There are beaches that are completely developed with condominiums and homes and businesses, and sea turtles are nesting on that beach and growing in numbers and doing very, very well.
“It’s [also] about awareness and building this ethic of responsibility of the environment,” added Godfrey. “It’s good for business, it’s good for our way of life and our enjoyment of the world.”
At Carolina Skiff, we are not only a proud sponsor of the Conservancy and Herren’s project, but we’re grateful for the work they are doing to revive sea turtle populations, protect their habitats and educate the world. We’ll be following Herren’s project and posting regular updates to our blog and social media.
To learn more about sea turtles, how you can help and for more information on the Conservancy, visit conserveturtles.org.