This summer Sea Turtle Conservancy launched its long-anticipated In-Water Turtle Research Program in the northeast Gulf of Mexico. The project is being carried out in collaboration with Dr. Ray Carthy at the University of Florida and is focused on determining sea turtle abundance, diet, health, movements and habitat requirements in the nearshore waters of Florida’s Big Bend region (from Apalachee Bay south to Hernando Beach). Our overall goals are: 1) to better understand the status, health, threats and trends impacting the various sea turtle species found in the area; and 2) to promote the conservation of sea turtles and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico.
Unexpectedly, it took over a year and a half to obtain the federal and state permits required to conduct a research program like this. Putting all the pieces together has been a lesson in perseverance. STC is grateful to everyone who donated toward the project, and we thank you all for your patience as we have worked through the myriad bureaucratic hurdles. STC began raising funds to launch the program two years ago and received very generous support to kick off the campaing from Dale Henderson of Cedar Key, Florida. Additional support was provided by Kim Ogren in honor of her late father, Larry Ogren, who conducted the first in-water studies of turtles in this area 50 years ago with Archie Carr. The project also received corporate support from Carolina Skiff Boats and Naked Turtle Rum. Through a matching gift program initiated by STC’s Board of Directors, we also received a number of generous individual donations from STC members. STC is deeply appreciative of all this support, which has made the program possible. We are hopeful that STC’s membership will continue to support the program. Toward that end, we will be raising additional funds for the project during this year’s Giving Tuesday campaign, which launches the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, November 27th.
A key component of the project was the acquisition and equipping of a new state-of-the-art research vessel, which we have christened the “R/V Lavinia” in honor of Lavinia Clay, wife of the late Landon Clay, STC’s long-time Board Chairman. The R/V (research vessel) Lavinia has a custom made tower with a second driving station that helps in the sighting and capture of turtles. It is one of the finest research vessels on the water – perfect for working with sea turtles in the shallow coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The project’s first order of business has been to conduct a region-wide survey of Florida’s “Big Bend” to identify hotspots of sea turtle abundance (pictured). This part of Florida is unique for its vast seagrass beds, relatively low amount of development, and shallow-water habitats that contain foraging green, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles. We are excited about this research and expect it to become a long-term monitoring effort in an area that may be impacted by future climate change and oil drilling.