I have always been fascinated with sea turtles. I grew up in Lighthouse Point in southeast Florida (a bit north of Fort Lauderdale), and as far back as I can remember, my family engaged in outdoor activities, such as beachcombing, snorkeling, shelling, birding, nature photography and general wildlife observation. I saw my first sea turtle from our family’s boat sometime in the mid-1970s. That initial encounter and many other formative experiences helped solidify my love of sea turtles and my lifelong commitment to their conservation.
Fast forward to July 9, 2021—I took part in filming an episode of Wildlife Nation with Jeff Corwin in Boca Raton during sea turtle nesting season. While I currently live and work in St. Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf coast, Boca Raton is a short drive from where I grew up on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
The episode focused on threats to sea turtles and the people who work to save them. Sea turtles have demonstrated tremendous resiliency over the millennia. The five species of sea turtles that currently inhabit Florida’s beaches and waters have roamed the earth in their current form for at least 110 million years—since the time of dinosaurs. They face many threats throughout their lives, many caused entirely by humans, and while they are resilient, sea turtles need our help.
The threats to sea turtles continue to grow—fisheries bycatch; habitat loss and disturbance due to development; oil spills and other pollution; ingestion of plastics; entanglement in marine debris; artificial lighting; beach armoring; and illegal harvesting. Climate change also threatens sea turtles as rising sea levels inundate nesting beaches. Six out of the seven sea turtle species who call North American waters home are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
When we filmed in July, sea turtles were in the height of nesting season, which takes place March through October on the Atlantic coast. Boca Raton and other beaches in Palm Beach County comprise one of the most important nesting areas in the world. More than 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the continental U.S. occurs in Florida. The state’s beaches support the world’s largest nesting aggregation of loggerhead turtles and almost all the nesting in North America for green turtles and leatherback turtles.
While filming, I helped excavate a loggerhead nest to document eggs that had hatched, and Jeff located a hatchling to be released. But the highlight of my day was helping release a loggerhead turtle that had been rehabilitated at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center—“Amelia” (Earhart). Sea turtles at Gumbo Limbo are named after influential women. This turtle had been rescued by the renowned In-Water Research Group in St. Lucie in March 2021. When admitted to Gumbo Limbo, the turtle was chronically debilitated—emaciated, malnourished, lethargic, experiencing infection and covered in barnacles. In addition, part of her front left flipper was missing—an injury that was likely sustained by a boat strike or shark attack.
Fortunately for Amelia, experienced personnel at Gumbo Limbo were able to nurse her back to health. At a healthy 105 pounds, she was a sub-adult in her late teens/early 20’s, approaching her reproductive age of 25+ years old. By the time a sea turtle reaches this age and weight, she has few natural enemies but only 1 in 1,000 to 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings will reach maturity to be able to reproduce. Amelia was given a remarkable second chance at survival and to contribute to the next generation of sea turtles.
After four months of care, she was eager to go back to her home in the ocean. When we set her down near the seaweed line on the beach, she took it from there. Once she reentered the ocean, I was incredibly moved to witness her return to the wild knowing the many obstacles she overcame and the major injuries she endured.
I undertake much of my work to reduce threats to sea turtles, other imperiled wildlife and their habitats from behind my Defenders’ desk—participating in meetings and policy discussions and sending comments and recommendations. It was incredibly uplifting to get my feet in the sand and feel the sun on my face and participate in the release of this spectacular creature. It’s a day I’ll never forget, just like the day I first saw a sea turtle in the wild.
Are you watching Wildlife Nation? Through the expertise of biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin and Defenders of Wildlife, this new weekly television series features amazing animals from across the country that will inspire wildlife advocates everywhere to keep fighting for our wild world. You can learn more about the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sea turtles on Wildlife Nation. The show airs weekends on ABC—check your local listings for showtimes.