Interns care for the turtles of Keewaydin during nesting season

Andrea Stetson

Thin jagged streaks of lightning lit up the dark sky over the Gulf of Mexico slightly illuminating the loggerhead turtle that flung sand over her back as she dug her nest.

Mosquitoes and no-see-ums swarmed around the two interns as the young ladies stood silently watching and waiting. The gentle lap of water trickling on shore, the noisy song of the crickets and the scratching of sand beneath turtle’s flippers blended together as the sounds of nature. Finally, the sand flinging stopped and the turtle was still as she dropped her round white eggs into the cavity she dug in the sand.

This young mother turtle lays her eggs on Keewaydin Island.

That’s when Laura Blessing and Jennifer Wissmann, the interns, quickly got to work. Under the glow of a red head flashlight, they scanned her pit tag lodged inside her back flipper. They added an exterior tag to a front flipper. They took a tissue sample, measured her shell and even gently and fondly patted her large head.

Once she was busy laying eggs, the mother turtle seem oblivious to the people around her.  As the last egg dropped into the hole the mother turtle slightly turned her body and began paddling her flippers across the loose sand to bury the cavity. Sand poured into the hole and also all over her shell. When she was done, the loggerhead spun around and lumbered back into the dark water. 

Once she disappeared under the surf Blessing and Wissmann verified the exact spot of her eggs and dug a trench around it. They set up a wire enclosure, pushed the bottom into the trench and shoveled sand around the bottom to keep it secure. They took a GPS reading, labeled the nest and then hopped back on their ATV’s to continue their nightly beach patrols.

The mother turtle heads back to the Gulf of Mexico after laying her eggs.

Every night from dark to dawn two interns, hired by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, roam Keewaydin Island looking for nesting loggerheads. They began in mid-May and will continue the night patrols until the end of July. Their mission is to protect the eggs and study the mother turtles. The wire enclosure they put around each nest protects it from the raccoons, coyotes and feral pigs that enjoy devouring turtle eggs. They enter all the data about the mother turtle into a computer so the information can be used by local, state and federal agencies to learn more about sea turtles.

Laura Blessing graduated in May from North Carolina State University with a degree in marine sciences with a biological concentration. Jennifer Wissmann graduated a few years ago from Southeast Missouri State with a degree in organismal biology and evolutionary ecology. Along with interns Emily Gross and Chelsea Denig, the ladies work in pairs six nights on and then two days off. They also take turns patrolling Naples Beach and the very northern tip of Keewaydin during the day.

The interns love their jobs, and while they admit sleep patterns are tough, that’s not the most challenging part of the job.

“I have a hard time with it,” Blessing said about sleep. “We get back to our condo, do our data entry and then go to bed around seven and get up at two in the afternoon. It takes some adjusting, but it is worth it.”

Laura Blessing and Jennifer Wissmann, both interns, take a tissue sample from the turtle’s flipper to run some biological tests.

“The worst is the heat and the bugs and when you can’t find a nest,” Blessing continued.

The interns need to find the eggs before digging the trench and putting the cage up so they don’t dig or put the cage on the eggs. Finding the exact spot was tricky until about a week ago when the interns devised a plan to put a piece of pink ribbon under the mother turtle’s tail as she lay the eggs so they can now find the exact spot even after she sloshes sand all over as she buries the nest.

“The worst part – the heat and the bugs,” Wissmann added . “And finding a depredated nest. The hogs are pretty bad. I caged a nest and a hog comes and destroys the cage. It comes back and completely destroyed the nest.”

In 2017 there were 22,000 eggs destroyed by pigs and coyotes.  Out of 430 nests 200 were destroyed by pigs and coyotes and three were eaten by raccoons. This year a hunter has been hired and the predation problem is not as bad.

The interns verify the exact location of the eggs before covering them with a wire screening to keep predators away.

While the bugs are horrendous, even with every inch of skin covered by clothes and lots of bug spray, the interns say the job is amazing and they just love it.

“The best park would be watching the turtle start laying the eggs,” Blessing exclaimed.    “That’s when you know it’s go time. Time to start work. That’s the best feeling when you find the eggs because you can cage it and it is ready to go.”

“The best part is getting to work on the turtle because they are awesome creatures,” Wissmann said. “They are like dinosaurs and I’ve always liked dinosaurs. And I like watching them lay eggs and go back to the ocean.”

Dave Addison, senior biologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, has headed up the turtle program on Keewaydin since 1983. At age 74 he just can’t stop hanging out with turtles. Two or three times a week Addison spends the night on Keewaydin helping the interns.

“It’s just interesting because you never know what you are going to see,” Addison said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, but there is always something that’s new.”

The interns leave the dock in south Naples around 7 p.m. to make the 15-minute boat ride to the island.  They arrange their gear as they sit in a cottage on stilts that overlooks the greenery and the Gulf. When the sky gets dark around 9:30 p.m. they each hop on an ATV, one heads north, the other south. It can be lonely and even a bit creepy alone on the island all night.

The interns put a wire cage over the nest to keep predators such as raccoons, coyotes and pigs away.

“The other night I saw a light and it was bright so I started going the other way, but it was a boat,” Blessing said.

Often shadows and lights appear closer then then actually are. Another time two terracotta soldiers on a front porch startled Blessing until she realized it wasn’t really people.

“One time there was a family of four in the morning and they were super interested and asked a bunch of questions, but I was caught off guard because you don’t expect to see anyone except us out here.”

One of the interns saw a panther. Several have seen the large feral pigs. They occasionally see people in the distance.

“It probably freaked me out the first night by myself, but then I get to work on the turtle and I said ‘wow I get to do this every night,’” Wissmann added.

The ATV’s have only dim red headlights so they don’t startle turtles. There is lots of driftwood, tree roots and dips in the sand to maneuver around in the dark. The interns look for turtle tracks and quickly shut down the noisy engine if they see any. Then they scan the dark sand for the turtle. When she is digging the nest they keep their distance and keep all lights off.  Once she is laying eggs they use a red light for illumination as they work.

“I love when I put the tags on,” Blessing said. “I feel like I am a nurse.”

If they don’t find any turtles during their 30-minute patrol they head back to the cottage and relax for half an hour. Inside there are lounge chairs, a desk and a laptop with very slow Wi-Fi for entering data. There are more chairs on a screened in porch.

If they see a false crawl they patrol longer to watch for the turtle’s possible return. If they find a nesting turtle, by the time their work with it is done, it is time for another patrol. Some nights are slow. There have even been nights with no nests at all. There are also many nights when they need to wait for the lightning storms to pass before heading out.

“When nothing is happening all you do is sit there and get tired,” Blessing explained. “When you are digging trenches your blood is pumping and you are not tired. When we see the turtle there is so much to do. It’s all just so interesting.”

One night there were eight nests and 11 false crawls. Blessing said she didn’t get off the island until 10:30 a.m. They usually leave around 5 a.m.

For all this work the interns get paid only $150 a week plus free lodging. Yet more than 30 people apply for the job every summer. It’s quite popular especially among women, Addison said.

The interns know it’s not a job that makes a lot of money, but it is a job that they just love.

 “They are a fan favorite,” Blessing said about turtles.

 And the job will only get better Blessing explained.  Turtle nests take about 60 days to hatch so those that were laid in May will start hatching in July.

“When the hatchlings start it will be great,” Blessing said. “Seeing all our hard work, all the bug bites and sweat pay off. I’m excited to finally see the hatchlings.”