The morning brings rosy sky over blue water, the slap of waves, and shorebirds skittering up and down the beach. This is Bruce Drye’s workplace. For 23 years, he has walked this beach looking for tread-like marks in the sand known as crawls, left behind by the sea turtles when they come to dig their nests, lay eggs and then stroll back out to sea.
As the marine turtle permit holder for 12 miles of St. George Island shoreline, Bruce is responsible for finding and protecting every sea turtle nest on the island. He is trained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which relies on some 200 permit holders and the volunteers they recruit to monitor turtle nesting on more than 800 miles of Florida sandy beaches. About 2,500 people have responded to the challenge.
Throughout the nesting and hatching season beginning in spring and ending in October, Bruce patrols the beach routinely, regardless of heat, rain or biting insects. Only severe thunderstorms chase him away. “I like walking the beach. I have lost 20 pounds,” Bruce said.
He is being modest though. This ritual shows his commitment to conserving the sea turtles that have lived on this planet for millions of years yet now are endangered or threatened species. He did this work once as a state parks employee; now he is retired and receives a small stipend that minimally reimburses him for the effort involved. Bruce doesn’t miss a day.
The 2013 nesting season has delivered good numbers here. Bruce has recorded the second highest number of nests for this north Florida barrier island near Apalachicola on the Gulf of Mexico coast. As of July 27, there were 215 sea turtle nests, most of them loggerheads and a few greens, which only recently began returning to the island.
On this Saturday morning, Bruce and his unpaid summer intern Lauren Schumaker, aided by several other volunteers, have scanned the beach and found two new loggerhead turtle nests and one new green turtle nest. The crawls are the critical clue to the presence of a nest. Loggerhead and green turtle crawls look different because of their distinct gaits, plus greens drag their tails and create a furrow.
Bruce said it is important people on the beach look for and recognize a sea turtle crawl, or “they’ll trample all the evidence we need to see.” Once a crawl is found, it is marked with red flags, and Bruce and Lauren come back to the discovered nests once all 12 miles of beach walking is done. Occasionally, there are false crawls where the marks are there but they do not lead to a nest.
Here comes the work
Before he could conduct any activities on the nesting beach to monitor and mark marine turtle nests, Bruce first had to spend several years training under another Marine Turtle Permit Holder authorized by FWC to conduct this work. Once he was qualified to obtain a Marine Turtle Permit of his own, he then must attend annual training sessions to ensure all activities are in compliance with state and federal laws protecting marine turtles. Only then can he be qualified to hold an FWC Marine Turtle Permit to work on the nesting beach.
Each day from May through late August, Bruce carefully assesses the crawl to determine if it is a nest. It is not uncommon for many crawls to occur that do not include eggs. It takes experience and training to know the difference. Detailed knowledge of sea turtle nesting behavior and careful appraisal of the sand thrown around the site by the female turtle provide the most important clues.
“Sometimes you have to get down on your hands and knees in the sand and dig to figure out if it is a nest,” Bruce said.
Bruce records the nest’s GPS location, measures the breadth of the crawl to estimate the turtle’s size, and carefully installs markers that identify this particular nest.
Often Bruce must install a specially designed screen to protect the nest from predators. The screen allows the hatchlings to escape the nest safely, but protects the eggs from large predators such as coyotes and raccoons. Ghost crabs can invade the nest, but it is the coyotes that present the greatest danger on St. George Island to both the eggs and later the hatchlings.
Lauren, a recent college grad from Texas, heard about this volunteer opportunity and is here for the entire nesting season. Bruce is delighted to be passing along his knowledge and skills to a younger generation. “If I am able to give my experience and training to Lauren, my efforts are worthwhile,” he said.
The eggs will take months to incubate and emerge. Bruce knows their odds for survival are long, but “they are all mine to take care of,” he said.
He wants more people to understand the challenges that sea turtle hatchlings face. Bright lights on houses, motels, condominiums and commercial buildings along the beach can disorient nesting adult females but are particularly harmful to turtle hatchlings. The hatchlings will head for the bright lights, thinking they are the sparkling sea. They can end up walking landward and are more likely to become prey for animals like coyotes, now prevalent on St. George Island. Bruce points out coyote tracks on the dunes.
Local ordinances and FWC’s guidelines on wildlife friendly lighting call for beachfront lights to be turned off, shielded, and to use amber or red low-wattage bulbs. But it doesn’t always happen, and it’s a message that Bruce teaches and repeats over and over again. He also reminds visitors to remove their gear – toys, chairs, boats and canopies – from the beach every night so nesting and hatching turtles don’t get stuck or misdirected by these obstacles.
He admits he becomes discouraged, knowing just a few bright beachfront lights, persistent predators and bad storms can be enough to destroy the chances of many of the sea turtle hatchlings on St. George Island.
“Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks,” Bruce said.
Yet his devotion to the sea turtles keeps Bruce walking the beach seven days a week, four to six hours a day, while also setting aside time for turtle talks to tourists and schoolchildren and taking calls at all hours from people who know he’s the local sea turtle guy.
“I’m a park ranger at heart. I love to talk to people,” he says.
And for Bruce there remains the excitement of finding yet another buried treasure, a sea turtle nest.
Learn more about sea turtles and what you can do to help protect them at MyFWC.com.