The Odd Hours of a Turtling Herpetologist

SCA Field Blogger Jeffrey Sommer Checks in from Cape Canaveral National Seashore

People have always told to me to pursue my passions, and that if you love your job it will feel like you’ve never worked a day in your life. I am an active person who loves the outdoors, and I am uber passionate about the natural world. When presented with the opportunity to spend my first post-collegiate summer outdoors and on the beach as a Herpetology Intern at Canaveral National Seashore, how could I refuse? The only downside is that Caroline (my teammate) and I have to be at work at 4am on certain days. So early! But is it worth it? Most definitely. Just this morning I had the opportunity to sit on the beach and watch the sunrise!

Working at the National Park with the second highest concentration of endangered species (a list including the Florida Manatee and the Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake) is so rewarding. Our central mission this summer is to work with three of those endangered species: Green, Loggerhead, and Leatherback sea turtles. Physically working the front lines of this major conservation effort is an awesome feeling. I am enjoying my work everyday and I know that my work is making a difference.

30 years ago, before Canaveral National Seashore began its sea turtle conservation efforts, nests had a 10 percent hatch rate. Today, hatch rates have skyrocketed above 90 percent! The conservation push, however labor intensive, has made all the difference!

So why do we hit the beach at 4am? The process of securing a sea turtle nest is straightforward, but not simple, and (Have I mentioned?) definitely labor intensive. Step 1: Drive the beach looking for sea turtle tracks in the sand, which indicate that an adult sea turtle has come to the beach to nest. Step 2: follow the tracks to determine whether or not the sea turtle has dug a nest and laid her eggs, or decided for some reason, such as the presence of a predator, to return to the water without laying eggs. Sometimes the turtles will dig nests, and then decide not to lay eggs, other times they’ll crawl up the beach and then crawl right back to the water (false crawl). Step 3: When a nest is found we probe it to locate the egg chamber, as the eggs have to be verified. Step 4 is the labor-intensive part: we have to carefully dig straight down to the egg chamber with our hands, reach the egg chamber and verify the presence of eggs. Step 5: Fill up the hole, place an iron grate over the top of the nest, and secure it into the sand with rebar to prevent predation. Step 6: mark the nest with a stake that includes information such as nest number, species, location, and date. 

We have to patrol the entire beach at Canaveral everyday and secure every single new nest. With over 24 miles of beach, this is no small task! We start early hoping to minimize predation by limiting the amount of time fresh nests remain unsecured, but in spite of our best efforts, predation still happens. Occasionally we find nests totaled, with no viable eggs remaining thanks to raccoons or a bobcat. We could start earlier, but then we would run into other issues: additional pitch-black night driving, plus the possibility that we’d miss some late nesters (a turtle might start nesting at any unpredictable hour during the night, but they generally seem to finish by 5 am).