Sea Turtle Trackers – Saving the Sea Turtle

By Kimberly P. Rebman

Photos by Steven Kovich

From Sand to Surf:  Saving the Sea Turtle

It’s 5 a.m. and Joe Widlansky has only one thing on his mind and that’s sea turtles.
Before the sun breaks over the horizon, Widlansky, aka Turtle Joe, is on his computer perusing emails regarding overnight turtle activity on the beaches.  Then it’s time to check on volunteers.  By 6 a.m. Widlansky is out the door, ready to monitor dozens of sea turtle nests and look for freshly laid tracks in the sand.

Freshly laid tracks

Feshly laid tracks

It’s just another typical day in the life of a sea turtle biologist.
Originally from Connecticut, Widlansky always loved animals and spending time outdoors.  He developed a keen interest in turtles at a very early age.  As a boy, Widlansky would collect the little hard-shelled creatures and bring them home to his mom, along with a wriggling snake or two, much like a proud feline dropping off a prized kill.
And despite living in beautiful New England during his youth, Widlansky had visions of residing elsewhere.
A fan of the television series, Flipper, Widlansky dreamed of one day visiting the “Sunshine State” where he could see dolphin and turtles up close. When he turned thirteen, Widlansky’s dream came true.
He and his family trekked down south to visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  It was then that he knew one day he would make Florida his home. “That solidified it,” recalls Widlansky with a smile.
When Widlansky returned years later as an adult, in the most random of ways, he stumbled upon St. Pete Beach and instantly fell in love with its seaside charm.  And eventually was led back to his love of turtles.
It wasn’t until arriving in Florida that Widlansky began working with marine life. While living in Connecticut, he worked for the aerospace company Pratt & Whitney, building 747 jet engines; a far stretch from studying and rescuing sea turtles.  When Widlansky finally settled in the “Sunshine State,” he began his track (no pun intended) and it wasn’t long after that he acquired his moniker, Turtle Joe.

Turtle Joe

Turtle Joe

Widlansky went to school for biology, and in 2000, applied for an internship with the Clearwater Aquarium, home to the celebrity dolphin, Winter. It was during this time that Widlansky met Bruno Falkenstein, who started turtle patrolling back in 1979 on St. Pete Beach. Widlansky had gotten to know Falkenstein by seeing him at the aquarium and over by the beaches.  In 2013 Widlansky asked to help form a non-profit, and ever since, the pair along with their team of 80 volunteers have been “saving turtles one track at a time.”
Sea Turtle Trackers, Inc. may have started out small in size, but their mission has always been big. The Pinellas County organization works diligently to establish a safe and nurturing environment for Florida’s sea turtles, the ecosystem and surrounding waters. And though turtle nesting season only takes place from April through October, protection and conservation are necessary year round.
With just one jeep and a boat, Widlansky and Falkenstein (along with a couple volunteers) will scan the sand all along St. Pete Beach (from Upham Beach to Pass-A-Grille), as well as Shell Key.  From the historic Don CeSar Hotel located at the entrance of Pass-A-Grille down to the jetty at the southernmost tip, 28 nests (and adding) have been discovered.  To ensure successful conservation efforts, Widlansky and his team certainly keep busy.

A nest in front of the Don Cezar Hotel

A nest in front of the historic Don CeSar Hotel

Sea Turtle Trackers checks each established nest thoroughly, and examines the beaches looking for freshly laid tracks. Once a new nest has been found, Widlansky is not permitted to relocate it, per FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) guidelines.  According to the FWC, nests cannot be moved for a variety of reasons.  One being that it can greatly skew research, which includes affecting the gender of the nest. Assignment of sex is achieved during the incubation period and is based on temperature.  The hotter the eggs surroundings are, the more females that are produced. Furthermore, if a nest is disturbed, the hatch rate will plummet. In each nest there are anywhere between 100-120 eggs, and if kept at rest, there will be a highly successful hatch rate of 90-95%.
Widlansky knows the odds are stacked greatly against the hatchlings, which is just one reason he feels such a strong need to promote public awareness through educational events and speaking engagements as often as possible.  The Sea Turtle Trackers team provides community outreach by attending facilities such as libraries, schools and camps. The team will also set up booths at local festivals, such as Pass-A-Grille’s ever popular Beach Goes Pops.  The Guy Harvey Resort in St. Pete Beach hosts “Turtle Tuesdays” every week at 4 pm.
The more the public is informed on sea turtles and made aware of their nesting habitats, the better the survival rate. Take into consideration that sea turtles are endangered, which is why education is crucial especially during the nesting season.
One of the sea turtles’ biggest threats faced is light pollution. Hotels and private residences, flash photography, car headlights, and flashlights used by late night beach walkers are all significant cause for concern. Going dark is imperative since bright light can disorient the turtles and make them fearful. Shielding light from the nests can be done in many simple ways, and once again, the more we are made aware, the better off our hatchlings will be.  Widlansky recommends that beach facing hotels and homes replace their bright white lights with a much softer, warmer glow of either amber or red. Sea turtles are unable to pick up on that particular light wavelength.
Another issue is beach furniture such as sand chairs and cabanas, which can cause obstruction for the turtles if left out at night, which is when the hatchlings will leave their nest. These items need to be put away and/or stacked neatly to the edge of the sand.
In addition, sea turtles are threatened by Florida’s tropical storms and hurricanes.  When Tropical Storm Debby passed through the northern and central parts of the state in June of 2012, 90% of 125 nests were washed out due to extensive flooding.
Lack of awareness, as mentioned prior, can greatly hinder the hatchlings chances of making it out to sea.  There is a difference, however, between simply not knowing and being deliberately neglectful. Sometimes humans’ purposeful erroneous actions and careless behavior can result in partial or complete loss of a nest.

An adopted Sea Turtle nest

An adopted Sea Turtle nest

Thankfully for Widlanksy, he has not had to deal with any kind of intentionally harmful or malicious activity involving the eggs. One issue the sea turtle biologist did encounter was when a drunken man was walking late at night on the beach and accidentally stumbled over a nest. The wooden barrier stakes were broken, however, the nest was fortunately left intact.
Widlansky did state that he will be taking extra steps to protect nests during the busy Fourth of July weekend.
Only one in 1000 sea turtles will live to be 25 years old and most hatchlings will get eaten on their very first day in the ocean; not particularly favorable statistics for the young turtles.
With the odds stacked so greatly against their survival, it makes it all that more amazing to see a sea turtle reach maturity.
“If the babies do survive past their first day, they will swim for about a week,” states Widlansky. “They’ll hide in the sea grass until they grow a bit.”  What follows next is pretty spectacular.  “The turtles will eventually follow the Gulf stream to the Northern Atlantic, all the way to Europe and over to Africa. They will feed there and grow up until their teenage years. After that, the turtles will go south down to the Caribbean and follow the current back to the Florida straight,” Widlansky explains.
To ensure the little world travelers keep swimming, we must continue to be proactive in our efforts to keep them safe, and that is why Widlansky and his Sea Turtle Trackers team are so important.
And, as with any non-profit organization, Sea Turtles Trackers, Inc. is always in need of funding. “We get very little grant money,” says Widlansky.  “Money comes from the sea turtle license plates and that {money} goes then to different Florida organizations that work with sea turtles.” The costs of running Sea Turtles Trackers, Inc. add up. Gas for the jeep and the boat, supplies and t-shirts for the volunteers are just some of the expenses that accumulate each week. It’s always a challenge to come up with funding.
Widlansky says he is currently tweaking ideas for funding and is always looking for fundraising opportunities.
One way that Sea Turtle Trackers, Inc. does raise money is by offering nests to adopt for a suggested donation cost of only $35.00.  As a sea turtle “parent” or “family,” a special wooden turtle plaque that includes a name and message of choice will mark your nest.  In addition, you will receive a certificate of adoption and information on the nest and how many hatchlings made their way to the Gulf.
Widlansky was happy to say that quite a few nests are in fact being adopted, including by families as far away as Germany and Scotland.  The adoption effort is just another way the community can become involved with nest awareness, raise money and truly feel like they are part of the turtles’ lives.
Protecting and conserving sea turtles and their precious nests isn’t always easy, fun or glamorous work, but for Widlansky and the Sea Turtle Trackers team, it comes as the best job in the world.
For every set of tracks found, the hope of new life is given.  For every light turned off or hotel cabana put away each night, a promise for the future has been made.  And for every hatchling whose tiny flippers touch the salty surf, Widlansky and the Sea Turtle Trackers can smile proudly and know that without their loving efforts, that moment in time would never exist.
Meeting with Turtle Joe Widlansky in Pass-A-Grille that warm, sunny morning was an honor I was privileged to receive. His profound passion for helping Florida’s sea turtles is unlike anything I have ever encountered. For Widlansky, being part of the Sea Turtle Trackers team is far more than just volunteer work. It’s a way of life; it’s what he knows and who he is.
As Widlansky turned to say goodbye and return to his turtle duties of the day, he looked back towards the ocean, tears welling in his eyes and with overwhelming emotion said, “Saving one turtle won’t change the world, but it’ll change the world for that one turtle.”
No truer words of inspiration could ever be spoken.


A Few Sea Turtle Facts swim with…

In Florida, there are five different kinds of sea turtles.  The most common in Pinellas County are the Loggerheads, with 99% making up the sea turtle population, followed by Green sea turtles. On the eastern coast of Florida, Leatherbacks are often seen. Two other turtle types here in the state are the Hawksbill sea turtle and Kemp’s Ridley.

Sea turtles live to be between 40-60 years old

Loggerheads weigh between 200-250 lbs
Green turtles can weigh as much as 440 lbs
Leatherbacks weigh between 500-2000 lbs
Hawksbill turtles weigh between 95-165 lbs
Kemp’s Ridleys weigh up to 100 lbs

Sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act

It takes 50-60 days for eggs to hatch
Eggs will hatch until October

Sea turtles will nest 4-5 times in a season, with 12-day intervals