On the Trail of the Turtles

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Every year, from May to October, dawn beckons Mote Marine Laboratories’ sea turtle patrol volunteers. Sarasota is part of the most important loggerhead turtle nursery area in the Western Hemisphere, attracting thousands of female turtles each summer in a perilous quest to lay their eggs and continue the existence of this ancient species. The loggerheads, […]


Every year, from May to October, dawn beckons Mote Marine Laboratories’ sea turtle patrol volunteers. Sarasota is part of the most important loggerhead turtle nursery area in the Western Hemisphere, attracting thousands of female turtles each summer in a perilous quest to lay their eggs and continue the existence of this ancient species. The loggerheads, ranging from 200 to 400 pounds, swim from far-off seas to the shore where they were born, laboriously crawling several hundred feet up on the sand to dig their nests at night. And they in turn draw the volunteers whose aid is so crucial to that cause.

Sunrise pierces the fall horizon as Suzie Seerey-Lester and Maryjo Perkins log their daily two-plus miles through seaweed and sand dunes, toting trowels, a regulation-data book and measuring gear. Unencumbered by the usual load of protective wire caging, yellow caution tape and wood ply stakes, they’re high-spirited and eager. Today they’re checking on the last remaining nest of this season.

They scan the serene and heavily nested expanse of Casey Key’s beachfront with well-trained expertise, ceaseless energy and good humor. Dedicated six months a year and, unlike most, seven days a week, Suzie and Maryjo team on most days, and they know this particular stretch is one of Mote’s most valued areas for research and tagging. It has been “their territory” almost exclusively for seven years. Today, however, they are not alone. 

Suzie’s husband, John Seerey-Lester, trails quietly behind, wielding his three-legged painter’s stool, tattered journal, drawing pencils, ballpoint pen and watercolors. He quick-sketches with perfect rendition, working to capture a series of unique moments painted across many pages en plein air. His muse is the woman he calls his “mermaid” bride, Suzie, and among his many admirers are these two, who are also fellow nature painters.   

John arrived in Sarasota more than 25 years ago as a British import from Manchester, England. He had worked in advertising and publishing, but during his first trip to East Africa in 1980, he found his passion for wildlife and became a professional artist, author and teacher. He discovered Casey Key and purchased one of the last remaining beachfront cottages there, where he lived for years. In 2000, John and Suzie married and moved from the beach to just “up the road” to accommodate their new life and create a joint painting studio in their home. 

For those in the know, Seerey-Lester is ranked among the most celebrated wildlife artists in the world. His near-photo-real paintings feature exotic, often endangered species. He prefers painting in oils but has mastered and taught most media and is known for portraits, nostalgic scenes and animals far larger than hatchlings, including bears, gorillas, or tigers drawn on location in spots ranging from China to Alaska to India. 

On this crisp morning, John’s commentary is suddenly interrupted as the three veer excitedly toward an obvious yellow-tagged stake tucked beneath a distant sandy ledge. They find themselves carefully stepping around dozens of miniscule flipper tracks chiseled in tiny, wild zigzags along the 150-foot “hike” leading down to water’s edge. John follows the trails as Suzie and Maryjo focus on the unique natural phenomenon: the telltale “depression” that produces a nest drop.

They discover an incubating well almost two feet deep and 60 days old. (Volunteers tag each nest with the date when they first discover it.)  Incubation time in Sarasota for hatchlings is approximately 60 days. Excavating precisely, Suzie inventories the contents, counting each deflated, ping-pong-ball-sized, leathery eggshell. It’s typical for about 100 to be deposited, with sex determined by the heat “at depth” (females develop deeper, where it’s warmer; males develop closer to the surface). Tracking exact numbers assures that weaker “pips” (those not quite out of the shell) will not be trapped. This hatched nest is that of a threatened—fast-approaching endangered—loggerhead sea turtle. Each time one hatches, it’s cause for elation. Authorities at Mote attribute the decline in Sarasota loggerhead nesting to the increase in coastal development and human populations, commercial fishing and, topping the list, environmental factors such as the extreme high incidence of red tide.

“Everything hangs in the balance,” explains John. These sea reptiles are among the oldest species on earth, dating back more than 3,000 years, but vanishing at exponential rates each year. Suzie and Maryjo tagged more than 60 nests last year on Casey Key; this year there were only 23 to protect.

“I see this more and more all parts of the world. It’s disheartening,” John says. “I fear that one day the only way to see exotic creatures may be in wildlife films or paintings like mine.”

“The more sea turtle nests we can protect and monitor, the better the odds become,” says Suzie. “Only one in every 1,000 hatchlings survives to full adulthood. We need 10 nests to yield one female who will return here in 30 years to keep the cycle going.”  

She looks for John, who is peering down near his feet, entranced but sketching furiously. One two-inch-size hatchling is still crawling frantically to its watery destiny. John catches the exact moment in vivid watercolor as it bounces, flips and finally becomes immersed in the first shock of salt water. So simple yet so complex. One more loggerhead swims out to disappear happily ever after—they hope. 

TURTLE FACTS

Loggerheads will lay two or three times a season but they only lay every other year.

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Turtles come back 30 to 35 years after they’ve hatched. If there’s a hurricane, only one in 25 comes back that year.

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False crawls usually happen if something distracts or obstructs the female.

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Many sea turtle volunteers have never witnessed turtle nesting. But there are still more than 250 sea turtle volunteers out of Mote’s 1,200 total volunteers, the largest number in any one program.

VISIT: www.seaturtle.org to track satellite tagged turtles.

www.redlist.org to determine which species are threatened, endangered or extinct.

www.mote.org to find out more about becoming a sea turtle volunteer.