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At Loggerheads, and Loving It
Through her internship with NOAA, Anna Windle is researching and protecting the nests of loggerhead sea turtles and working every day in the natural beauty of a remarkable estuary.
MARCO ISLAND, Florida––There’s a moment, on an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, when the soft white sand under Anna Windle’s carefully digging hands suddenly sinks a little. That moment always catches her breath, because she knows she’s about to see a small wonder: a loggerhead sea turtle’s nest.
“There’s an air pocket where the egg chamber is, so then you dig just a little more, and you see the eggs,” she says. “It’s always fun to be the one to dig.”
Through her summer internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Windle is spending 10 weeks at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a pristine, 110,000-acre habitat of mangrove forest and lagoons, canals, and creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands. Open water habitats comprise 70,000 acres, and this is where Windle—an environmental science major with minors in biology and anthropology—is spending most of her time. She’s been living on Marco Island at the reserve’s field station, traveling by boat each day to remote areas like Cape Romano to conduct research.
“Every single morning we go out around eight o’clock to do turtle patrol,” she says. “There are six beaches to patrol. We go by boat, and either drive by or walk the beaches.” She and her fellow intern, Sarah Norris, who’s a graduate student in environmental science, look for crawls—the distinctive tracks that a female sea turtle makes the only time she comes to land, hauling herself from the ocean to dig a nest in the beach and lay her eggs.
If it’s a “false crawl,” meaning that the turtle came up but did not nest, they note the location. If she nested, they gently dig to confirm the nest’s location. Then they install a wire cage over the spot to protect the nest from local predators like raccoons, as well as human interference. The nests—and even the false crawls—are logged into a GIS map.
It takes 60 days for a loggerhead sea turtle to hatch, and by mid-July, Windle says, the hatching had begun.
“There’s a depression in the sand, so we know there was a hatching the night before. We go into the nest to make sure there are none trapped, and we open the unhatched eggs to determine at what stage they stopped developing.” Sometimes, she says, they find babies who are stuck on the way out, so they help them make it to the sand on top, where they scramble for the water immediately. “It’s amazing,” Windle says.
Jill Schmid, a GIS specialist at Rookery Bay who is Windle’s mentor and supervisor for the internship, says the data goes to the state of Florida as well as the federal reserve and the county. “It’s important, and it’s really being used a lot,” she says. “Loggerheads on the whole have been on the decline. Here on the west coast [of Florida] the nests have been on the rise the past few years. So we are managing trends.”
Schmid says that Windle and Norris, a 2013 graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University who is pursuing a master’s degree there, are both doing excellent work. “They have been phenomenal in that I haven’t had to get much involved. They know what they need to do and they do it.”
This is Windle’s first internship. Last summer, she traveled with Washington College’s Department of Environmental Science and Studies’ field course to Ecuador, studying in the Amazonian rainforest as well as the Galápagos Islands off the coast. The summer previous, she traveled with the College’s Tanzania Seminar and completed a research paper on women’s health care in the African country.
While in Florida, she’s been making contact with universities that offer graduate school programs in marine sciences. She plans to get her advanced degree specializing in marine mega-fauna—the larger species of marine animals like sea turtles and mammals—and keeping her hand firmly in field research.
“I would love to work in a place like Rookery Bay or the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, where they do similar research,” she says. “My favorite part is just being out there. Every single day we see dolphins, manatees, sharks, rays, all types of marine wildlife. I just love being out there every single day.”