Recently, I came upon the opportunity to be a part of something incredible. Through the partnership held between the Houston Zoo and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA), I was given the chance to assist at the NOAA facility in Galveston working with their protected species branch. My hope is that by helping out at the NOAA facility, I will be better informed and better equipped to spread the conservation message through the various Houston Zoo communication channels. The NOAA branch in Galveston works heavily with sea turtles, performing tasks such as rescuing turtles hooked by fisherman and releasing injured turtles after they’ve been rehabilitated (among about a thousand other responsibilities). Every Monday, a turtle survey is completed during which approximately 80 miles of coastline is examined. Monday, August 12 was my first survey.
We start bright and early at 7am. My guide is Lyndsey. She’s a federal researcher and biologist who is an expert in sea turtles, and just about everything else. Lyndsey is charged with surveying the coastline, picking up stranded turtles, and if necessary, performing necropsies (an autopsy for an animal) of the deceased turtles to determine a cause of death.
Our day begins by taking the ferry across to Bolivar so we can kick off the survey. A normal survey averages on 10 hours, but Lyndsey has told me that today, we have some extra jobs to take care of. I’m a little nervous because I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of Lyndsey who has done this a million times. I’ve also never seen a dead turtle, much less help with a necropsy. My stomach rumbles suspiciously. I take a deep breath……let’s do it.
One of the extra tasks of the day is to install signs on the beach with the sea turtle hotline number. This number goes directly to Lyndsey, and she answers it 24/7. If you happen to see a sea turtle on the beach or catch one while fishing, you can call the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. If you are fishing and catch a sea turtle, you’re not going to be in trouble and there’s no fine, we just really want to help the animal out so we can release it back into the wild.
After we dug, and dug, and dug to place the signs, we stepped back to enjoy the beautiful new signs on Bolivar peninsula. Be on the lookout for more of these in the near future.
It was time to continue down the beach on our survey. We ride past locals and tourists alike as Lyndsey discusses the importance of public awareness of the sea turtle population in Galveston. While some of the sea turtles are being reported on the sea turtle hotline, many of the stranded turtles in Galveston go unreported, resulting in an increased number of deaths. With the installation of the new signage, we hope to create a better atmosphere of public awareness and show that anyone who spots a turtle on the beach that they can help. Also, I will be doing my best to spread the message from the Zoo, as we promote the idea of conservation of all animals, especially our local species.
Fast forward down the beach about 60 miles and Lyndsey and I had finished the actual survey part of the day. It was a long day which sadly involved burying a couple sea turtles that had washed up on the beach. I’ll spare you the details this time. However, we weren’t done.
After each survey, Lyndsey spends anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half on Surfside Jetty cleaning up monofilament line. This is the common fishing line found on most fishing reels and on the jetty, it’s EVERYWHERE. When this line gets tangled and cut, it’s free to float in the water where it knots with seaweed, a sea turtle’s favorite food. I think most would agree that seaweed laced with knotted monofilament is not conducive to healthy turtles. If you’re ever on the jetty, check out these great monofilament recycling bins where you can place your knotted and old fishing line.
We empty the bins and pick up what we can. While we walk back down the long jetty, Lyndsey says, “Well, that’s it. You finished your first survey.” It’s now about 8:30pm and I can’t believe the day blew by so fast. We drive back to the NOAA sea turtle barn where we unload, and finish up. I’m tired, hungry, and partially sunburnt. The only solace I have is hoping that all that digging, and cleaning, and cutting, and picking up trash might have helped at least one teeny tiny sea turtle. The whole drive home, I can’t wait to get back and start spreading the word about the sea turtles.
Look forward to more sea turtle stories next month!