Gulfarium launches sea turtle education program for customers

OKALOOSA ISLAND — As surfers rode the waves of the Gulf of Mexico and beachgoers strolled the white-sand shore, 15 people took numerous sea turtle lessons late Wednesday afternoon -noon at the Gulfarium CARE (Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, Educate) Center.

Threats to sea turtles, efforts to rescue and rehabilitate those stranded by injury or disease, and how mother turtles create their nests on the beach were among the many issues visitors were told about. at the CARE Center.

Wednesday’s hour-long educational event marked the second “CARE” program for turtleswhich started in January and teaches guests how the rehabilitation center works and the importance of preserving endangered sea turtle species.

The program is a partnership between the center and the Okaloosa County Department of Tourism Development.

Since its development in 2015, the CARE Center at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island has rehabilitated and released hundreds of sea turtles into the Gulf.

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Loggerheads, greens, Kemp’s turtles and leatherback turtles – four of the seven species of sea turtles – are the types that have most often been helped by the center over the years.

Loggerheads and greens are the types that typically nest on Emerald Coast beaches from May through October. County officials typically record about two dozen sea turtle nests on local beaches each season.

Barbara Miller (right) uses a set of calipers to measure a turtle shell as she and Patti Sawyer perform a mock intake exam similar to the one Gulfarium CARE Center staff perform when welcoming a turtle from sick or injured sea.

Part of Wednesday’s program focused on the ongoing care of several sea turtle ‘patients’, who swam in large pools of Gulf water kept at 75 degrees as they recover from injuries or ailments. .

Some of the turtles were rescued from area beaches by staff from the CARE Center, which helps rescue turtles between Mobile, Alabama and Panama City.

One of the turtle patients featured on Wednesday’s program was a loggerhead named Jamie who came to the center last November. She had been found near the Navarre Beach fishing pier with two hooks stuck in her esophagus.

Jamie, who weighs 168 pounds, had her hooks surgically removed the day after she arrived at the center and could be sent back to the Gulf in a few months, said CARE Center stranding coordinator Tabitha Siegfried.

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Jessica Valek, Coastal Resources Coordinator with the Okaloosa County Department of Tourism Development, uses a sea turtle nest model to explain how sea turtles lay their eggs on local beaches.

While the huge Jamie swam in his own pool, 15 much smaller Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles roamed around in the water of nearby pools. Each Kemp ridley was brought to the center last December from Cape Cod, Mass., after contracting pneumonia and having his metabolism slowed by “cold stun”, a sudden and steep drop in body temperature. ‘water.

Sixteen Kemp’s ridleys were brought to the center for treatment. One did not survive, but the other 15 are expected to be released within weeks, Siegfried said.

She said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials decide where each rehabilitated turtle is released in the gulf.

Guests on Wednesday’s program also took part in a turtle intake simulation, in which they used sea turtle-shaped models to learn how to measure a turtle’s shell, or the largest and roundest of its carapace, to help determine its age.

They also checked whether the model had a metal identification tag given by a rescue or search organization and whether there were any obvious signs of injury, and they examined the turtles’ x-rays which may reveal problems. which are not obvious.

After showing an X-ray that revealed Jamie the Loggerhead’s fangs, Siegfried asked the group what they would do to help the turtle.

“Call the vet,” program participant Barbara Miller of Destin said as others nodded in agreement.

The final part of Wednesday’s “CARE” program for turtles featured the county’s Coastal Resources Coordinator, Jessica Valek, showing off a simulated sea turtle nest while describing the nesting process along the Gulf Coast.

Valek said the mother sea turtles would crawl on a local beach at night while leaving tire tracks in the sand to build their nests. They will use their rear flippers to dig out their deep egg chamber, which Valek says looks like an upside-down light bulb.

Mr. Right, who is missing his two left flippers, is one of the permanent residents of the Sea Turtle CARE Center at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.

After laying her eggs, which can number over 100 per nest, the mother turtle will again use her rear flippers to bury the chamber and hopefully protect it from predators such as coyotes and raccoons.

Valek said county staff patrol local beaches very early every morning during nesting season to find and mark nests with sticks, tape and signs, and then monitor the nests.

After a few months, the turtles hatch, usually at night, and emerge from the nest towards the gulf. That is, if they aren’t picked up by birds or other animals and aren’t disoriented by artificial white lights they may mistake for the moon’s reflection on the water, Valek said.

Other obstacles for mother turtles and hatchlings include trash, beach chairs, umbrellas and toys left on the beach, holes dug in the sand and even sand castles, she said. added.

As if that weren’t enough, hungry newborns looking for a bite to eat in the Gulf often eat from discarded plastic bottles and ingest bits and pieces that harm them, Valek said.

Due to predators and various human-made threats on land and in the sea, only one in 1,000 newborns will survive to adulthood, or when they turn 20 to 25, Valek noted.

“That’s why we do what we do to protect them,” she said.

The next “CARE”ing for Turtles programs are scheduled for March 9 and 23. Exact start times for the programs on these dates were not available at press time.

Other programs may take place throughout the summer.

Admission to each event is $10 and each meet is limited to 15 guests.

To learn more or to reserve a spot on the next program, visit www.gulfarium.com/careingforturtles.

Ryan H. Bowman