Inside the work of Gumbo Limbo crew
that strives to be biggest ally of these at-risk sea creatures
ABOVE: Gumbo Limbo workers roll a 350-pound female green turtle named Yamato to the ocean at Spanish River Park before a crowd typical of such turtle releases. Yamato, who was treated for partial paralysis after being hit by a boat, wears a satellite-tracking device and is strapped into a custom-built gurney. BELOW: Veterinarian Maria Chadam raises her arms as sea turtle rehab coordinator Whitney Crowder hugs Gumbo Limbo manager Leanne Welch to celebrate the release of Yamato. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Larry Keller
It’s a typical Sunday afternoon at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, and visitors cluster around the aquarium, stroll the boardwalk and explore the butterfly garden.
It’s the injured and ailing sea turtles in outdoor tanks, however, that inspire the most fervent reactions.
A little boy stands at one, gawking at a turtle named Cane swimming languidly. “That’s so ginormous!” he exclaims.
It’s doubtful many of the 200,000 annual visitors are aware of the array of scientists, educators, interns and 150 volunteers who work together to protect and heal turtles, and inform the public about them, or the specifics of what they do.
“They are the go-to place for the south end of Palm Beach County and south of that. These are very important nesting beaches,” says Larry Wood, a biologist affiliated with the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation.
Here are a few members of Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtle team:
Sea Turtle Conservation
& Research Program
“I absolutely love what I do,” says David Anderson, sea turtle conservation coordinator. “Being on the beach every morning at sunrise — that’s my office. You encounter something different every day.”
Plus, people thank him for what he’s doing, tell him how lucky he is to be doing it and snap photos of him at work.
“It must be a pretty cool job,” Anderson says with a laugh. “I feel very fortunate.”
Anderson and his team count and record data during sea turtle nesting season, and a whole lot more. He and marine conservationist Kirt Rusenko are the only full-time staffers in this unit of Gumbo Limbo.
Anderson has a bachelor’s degree in history from Auburn University and a master’s in physical geography from the University of Alabama.
Rusenko has a doctorate in zoology from Clemson University and has been Boca Raton’s marine conservationist since 1995. He was recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2013 for his work in protecting sea turtles.
Five part-time staffers assist them during nesting season, March 1 through Oct. 31. They have degrees or are pursuing degrees in marine sciences, and each has spent two or three years with the team.
Anderson was a middle school and high school science teacher, and an adjunct professor at Broward College, when he began volunteering at Gumbo Limbo in 2006, then worked part-time there in summers.
“All teachers need a second job,” he quips.
When the job Anderson now holds became vacant in 2015, he applied and got it.
During nesting season, Anderson’s team meets at Gumbo Limbo about 30 minutes before sunrise. Then, equipped with tablet computers, water bottles and rain jackets, they head to the 5-mile section of beach that they survey.
Once there, they record information on the types of species that came ashore in darkness — they can tell by the pattern of their tracks — as well as geographic data, whether they found nests, the condition of them and other information.
Then they return to Gumbo Limbo to input the 1,300 data points.
“It’s very data-intensive work,” Anderson says.
He also supervises guided nighttime viewings of wayward hatchlings being released in the ocean, and group outings to search for adult females laying eggs. He estimates a 70% success rate at this — while being vigilant that nobody disturbs the turtles with lights from cameras, cellphones and the like.
In the off-season, Anderson remains busy fine-tuning data for submission to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, attending workshops and conferences and making presentations to civic groups.
One highlight of his job occurred when a high school girl from North Dakota, who wanted to be a turtle biologist for a day, visited courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
It wasn’t a banner year for green turtle nests, so when Anderson took her to the beach, they got a surprise. “One of the biggest green sea turtles I’ve seen was finishing her nest on the beach,” he recalls. “It was like it was purposely for her.”
Jeanette Wyneken, a professor of biological sciences who oversees the Florida Atlantic University Research Gallery at Gumbo Limbo, holds a pair of female 4-month-old green sea turtles that were part of her sex/temperature research.
Florida Atlantic University
In one corner of Gumbo Limbo’s complex is an FAU research laboratory. Visitors can look down from the second floor upon tubs of turtles, and usually a professor or a student is on hand to answer questions about the work underway.
“Our lab is in many ways unique in the world,” says Jeanette Wyneken, an FAU professor of biological sciences and researcher who oversees the facility. “We’re not only doing the science, but we talk about it in real time.”
FAU researchers once had to lug jugs of saltwater from the ocean to the lab for their work. “It limits what you can do,” Wyneken says. Nowadays, ocean water is pumped directly there via underground pipes and into a storage tank.
Wyneken’s doctorate in biology is from the University of Illinois, far from any oceans. But she had small pet turtles as a child (after her mother explained that a pet dinosaur wasn’t an option) and eventually a box turtle that she kept for more than 50 years. It was more than 100 years old when it died, she says.
Her research at the Gumbo Limbo lab includes an ongoing years-long study into how temperatures affect the gender ratios of sea turtles. Gender isn’t established until after eggs are laid. She has found that the warmer the climate, the more likely hatchlings will be females. In seven of the past 10 years, loggerhead hatchlings have all been females, she says.
“If we have too much of one sex and not the other, we have a problem because we’re dealing with endangered or threatened species,” Wyneken says. A gender imbalance greatly affects reproduction and the survival of those species.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be documenting the effects of climate change,” Wyneken says. “The turtles tell the story clearly and non-threateningly.”
Hotter temperatures not only affect the hatchlings’ gender, but their very survival. Some 79% to 82% of loggerhead sea turtle eggs on the Boca Raton beach used to hatch, but that was down to 58%, and then 38%, in the particularly hot years of 2015 and 2016 respectively, Wyneken says.
“This is serious. They can’t dig themselves away from the hot temperatures, so they die.”
Green turtle successful hatch rates are on a similar track, Wyneken adds. (Leatherbacks nest in far smaller numbers in Florida and are harder to study for various reasons.)
The 2017 and 2018 nesting seasons rebounded somewhat, and 64% and 70% of clutches successfully hatched respectively, still lower than what used to be typical.
Other turtle research at the lab has long been conducted by Wyneken’s fellow professor Michael Salmon. He has shown, for example, that sea turtles can see color, and perceive some colors more clearly than others. One of Salmon’s clever students devised a turtle maze and reward system for the study.
“We now know another piece about the biology of these animals,” Wyneken says.
And the information has potential practical uses. Long-line fishing operators bait thousands of hooks on gear that contains lights. Using a lighting color that doesn’t attract turtles to the baits could help save them from being inadvertently killed.
Gumbo Limbo lab research isn’t exclusively devoted to sea turtles. Professor Stephen Kajiura and his students have been studying sharks, including their senses of smell and sight. And Professor Marguerite Koch is studying the effects of ocean acidification — caused by absorption of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — on seagrasses.
The rehabilitation team could very well be renamed the creative team. Its members have made a brace from zip ties and epoxy. Learned to apply honey as a topical antibiotic. Used medicinal leeches to reduce swelling from fishing-line entanglements. Applied medicinal maggots to remove dead tissue from infections.
“You definitely get creative,” says Caitlin Bovery, an assistant sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator.
Perhaps never more so than last summer when two adult, eggs-carrying females were admitted to the rehab center with serious boat strike injuries.
The hospital team created a quiet environment in tanks for them and, several times, administered a labor-inducing drug. The tanks were drained and the turtles were elevated on a large tire so their eggs could drop with gravity. It worked, but when staff buried the eggs on the beach to incubate, no hatchlings emerged. Still, both mothers recovered from their injuries sufficiently to be released and perhaps nest again.
Not only turtles have received medical care. A porcupine fish in the nature center’s aquarium was sedated and kept damp with seawater-soaked towels while staff veterinarian Maria Chadam surgically removed a fishhook from its small intestine. The fish made a quick recovery.
Bovery is one of three full-time staffers in the rehab unit. She has a master’s degree from FAU in environmental studies. Before joining the rehab team, she was a volunteer.
“I fell in love with sea turtles when I was a little kid,” Bovery says. “I loved the idea of these magnificent creatures that have been around since the dinosaurs. They’re so charismatic.”
Emily Mirowski has the same title as Bovery. She was quoted in media globally in October after she removed 104 pieces of plastic that had been ingested by a sick baby turtle that died after being taken to Gumbo Limbo.
Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Coordinator Whitney Crowder has worked in sea turtle biology since 2002, including managing the Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key for two years. She was invited by Greenpeace to speak with ocean activists including Jane Fonda and Ted Danson at a rally in October at the U.S. Capitol.
Chadam, the veterinarian, is on site two days a week. Turtles whose injuries prevent them from ever being released are usually given to other facilities, such as aquariums. Two are permanent residents at Gumbo Limbo.
The turtle hospital was designed for 30 patients a year but treats from 50 to 100, Bovery says. Helping them all is a challenge.
“We find the space,” she says. “We make the time.”