The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is home to one of the longest running sea turtle monitor and protection programs in the country. For 35 years, the Conservancy has protected more than 285,000 sea turtle hatchlings. This work is powered by a team of interns who spend the hot summer nights combing area beaches in search of nests in order to monitor and protect them from predators. We sat down with Jill Gorges who is wrapping up her summer as a Conservancy Sea Turtle Intern.
Q: So, what is it like to be a Conservancy Sea Turtle intern?
Jill: The life of a sea turtle intern can be summarized in the following three words: food, sleep, and turtles. Sea turtles are not creatures of habit and you never know what to expect. Therefore, a day or night in the field is never the same as the one before.
Their unpredictable behavior has led to some very exciting nights in the field. There was the night we satellite tagged a green sea turtle, the night we had so many turtles come up to nest we didn’t get a break until 4:30 AM, and the night we watched a nest of hatchlings make their way to the water, just to name a few. Some days you may feel like a zombie, but in the end, it’s all worth it.
Q: Why did you apply to be a sea turtle intern at the Conservancy?
I applied to be a sea turtle intern with the Conservancy because I have a passion for working with sea turtles. While studying abroad in Australia, I volunteered at a sea turtle rehab center. While volunteering and encountering sea turtles in the wild while scuba diving, I knew I wanted to learn more and work with these animals. Ever since then I have pursued opportunities to work with these animals and the Conservancy’s nesting research is one of the longest running in the country. I thought it would be a great way to get hands on experience as well as learn a lot about sea turtles, which I definitely have!
Q: How did you feel when you were selected for the sea turtle program?
When I found out that I was selected to be a part of the sea turtle program was very excited but also a bit nervous. A project with such longevity is a little intimidating to work on at first, but after learning the procedures and schedule, I felt like I had been working on the project for a long time. Working the night shift was a big change after working a normal 8–5 job, but being able to see the nesting mothers made it all worth it.
Q: What is your most memorable experience?
Jill: One of the most unusual things I have seen out on Keewaydin Island during a night shift was two loggerheads nesting right next to each other. Keewaydin Island is a very long, narrow island a few miles long with a lot of sandy areas preferred for nesting. Turtles are believed to be more of solitary animal rather than gregarious or social animals so seeing two at once was a surprise to me. At first, I saw two tracks and assumed that one was an up track and the other track was going down back to the water. Never in a million years did I expect to find TWO turtles right next to each other!
One was already halfway through laying her eggs and the other was just starting to dig her egg chamber. The second one who was digging her nest was so close to the other, she kept hitting the nesting turtle in the carapace with her flipper! Surprisingly the nesting turtle seemed not to even notice that she was being hit by another turtle. Eventually the one digging gave up on digging her nest since she hit a large tree root which resulted in a false crawl meaning she left the beach without laying her eggs. The other turtle, however, successfully nested and hopefully the nest will hatch soon. Still to this day, I cannot believe that I saw two turtles right next to each other. There is plenty of beach for them to spread out, but again, one can never quite tell what the turtles will do.
Q: What would you tell others considering applying for a Sea Turtle internship at the Conservancy?
Jill: The sea turtle program involves a lot of unusual work. Night shift is hard to adjust to and is not for everyone. Sleeping at unusual times of the day is required! In the field, conditions are not always the most pleasant. There is a very abundant population of mosquitoes, noseeums, fire ants (my favorite), and any other small bug that likes to bite. It can be very hot or very windy with a lighting storm moving in but the turtles will most likely still come to nest. Then when hatching time arrives, there are smelly rotten eggs and possibly even maggots. Evaluating a nest for the hatch success is not for those with a weak stomach! Overall, being a sea turtle intern this summer has been an amazing experience and I would do it all over again if I could. This will be a summer I will never forget.