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The Leatherback Project is Saving Sea Turtles

Stephen Brown

The front line of marine conservation is not being fought by environmental activists or a band of bleeding hearts, but is being led by a dedicated team of biologists and researchers studying some of the most ancient sea life to still roam the Earth. The research team at Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) in Sea turtle hatchlings - Loggerhead Marinelife CenterJuno Beach have made it their mission to protect sea turtles through research and biological study, helping broaden our communicative understanding for a more synoptic approach of study of the marine ecosystem they inhabit, thus lending itself to more responsible and effective conservation efforts and conscientious public works.

 

LMC uses a three-pronged approach when it comes to marine conservation, using sea turtles, more specifically loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks, as flagship species to create an umbrella of protection in the sea. Broken into three specific spokes embracing one overarching goal of marine and sea turtle conservation, LMC brings awareness of these creatures and their habitat through Education, Rehabilitation and Research. The education and rehabilitation branches are by far the most well known of LMC’s mission, with huge visual cues throughout the Juno Beach facility. The impressive museum/exhibition center gives visitors the opportunity to learn about sea turtles’ life cycle, the marine environment and threats without ever donning a wetsuit and taking a plunge, while the rehabilitation tanks in the turtle yard and the state-of-the-art turtle hospital are not only important places in terms of care for ill and injured sea turtles, but also a place to learn basic biology while being a huge draw for visitors (LMC welcomed more than 200,000 visitors last year alone), giving the public an up-close experience with the animals the LMC hopes to save.

 

Though these two arms are by far the most visible aspects of LMC’s mission of “promoting conservation of Florida’s coastal ecosystems with a special focus on threatened and endangered sea turtles,” with the tank yard arguably taking Loggerhead Marinelife Center - hatchling sea turtle in seaweedon the unofficial role as the face of the organization, it is LMC’s work conducted in the dead of night that just might be sea turtles’ best chance to return from the brink.

 

LMC’s research department’s night begins at 9 p.m. When most are settling in for the evening, tuning into “Must See TV,” the research staff is just putting on the pots of coffee, readying gear in weather and impact resistant cases, gassing up ATVs, checking weather reports and running the numbers from the previous night. Though turtle-nesting season officially began in March, with leatherbacks leading the charge, the months of May and June are when things really heat up, with loggerheads just hitting their stride and the traditional start green turtle nesting beginning. And LMC’s stretch of beach that runs from the Martin/Palm Beach County border south through MacArthur Beach State Park, coming in at just a smidge over nine and a half miles, is part of one of the most active loggerhead nesting areas in the world (some 10,000 nesting females visit the beaches from Brevard to Broward each year), is the highest nesting density of leatherbacks in the state, and accounts for nearly 12-percent of all of Florida’s sea turtle nests.

 

To put the importance of LMC’s beach in perspective, the numbers from 2011 shine a bit of light on the activity on the beach. Loggerheads are far and away the most common visitor to these beaches, with 7,674 nests alone during the 2011 season, while greens had an impressive 1,904 nests and Nesting leatherback sea turtle - Loggerhead Marinelife Center - Leatherback Projectleatherbacks nesting 278 times. With the average number of 102 eggs per nest on LMC’s beach, this equates to an estimated 1,010,226 eggs laid in 2011, with 404,575 hatchlings making it to the water. However, the early arrival of hurricane Irene delivered a substantial blow to the endangered turtles, wiping away nearly 2,300 sea turtle nests, 23-percent of the entire season’s total, resulting in the destruction of 234,600 eggs alone. These numbers are simply staggering; the beach is much more than a weekend recreation hotspot, but a giant, ancient incubator teaming with hundreds of thousands of developing sea turtles just waiting below the sand to break the surface and scramble for the water’s edge.  

 

“We’re pretty busy here,” says Kelly Martin, one of the lead biologists with LMC. Together with biologist Chris Johnson and a handful of seasonal researchers (six staff members in total), LMC is creating one of the most extensive databases on sea turtles in the state, monitoring nesting, collecting data, tagging leatherbacks and assisting in research projects to find out more about these ancient and somewhat misunderstood reptiles—and that’s just the half of it.

 

Approximately 60 days after each nesting, LMC’s researchers return to each egg chamber to collect data on the emerging hatchling turtles making their way for the water. On the public awareness front, the LMC research team also operates turtle walks in connection with the education department throughout the summer, giving the eco-curious and burgeoning naturalist a chance to experience an ancient and truly magnificent acts of nature unfold.

 Loggerhead Marinelife Center - Juno Beach

LMC’s rookery is home to three regular nesting species: loggerheads and greens, which are both currently classified as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN); and leatherbacks, which the IUCN classifies as critically endangered. The leatherback, the largest of the seven sea turtle species and feeds primarily on jelly fish at the oceans' depths, is a species of high concern around the globe, with diminishing populations threatening local extinctions in many parts of the world. An unfortunate and most noticeable example being Malaysia, once a hotbed for nesting leatherbacks, at one point hosting up to 10,000 nests a year, had just two nesting females in 2008—both clutches infertile. But despite the odds thoroughly stacked against these large cretaceous-era sea creatures, Florida has recently seen an uptick in leatherback nesting, spurring LMC’s now 12-year-old Leatherback Project.

 

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To learn more about the research Loggerhead Marinelife Center is conducting, visit the Juno Beach location. Explore the exhibition hall and turtle yard, and sign up for a turtle walk this June and July and experience one of the most ancient acts of nature left on this planet. Visit LMC’s website, marinelife.org, to register for a turtle walk this summer.

   To follow along with LMC’s Leatherback Project, visit the blog here and find out who’s nesting, what the numbers look like this year and how Florida’s leatherbacks are fairing.

 

Loggerhead Marinelife Center

14200 U.S. Hwy. 1

Juno Beach, FL 33408

561-627-8280 

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