From ocean-dwelling animals to land-based friends, World Turtle Day on 23rd May is a perfect excuse to celebrate some turtley incredible animals. Based in Florida, Carlee Jackson is a sea turtle conservationist who has lots of experience protecting these mesmerising reptiles of the sea! With our very own sea turtle nests right here in Mozambique’s Jangamo Bay from November, turtles have a special place in the hearts of the LTO team. To mark World Turtle Day, Carlee chats all things turtle conservation!
We understand that (alongside your first love of sharks!) you do a lot of work on sea turtle nesting and rehabilitation in Florida. What is the focus of your turtle research?
I actually just recently switched jobs! But I’ve mainly done beach conservation helping to protect the sea turtle nests along Florida’s beaches. Sea turtles come up and nest on our beaches in nesting season, which is March through October. We mark the nests so that foot traffic doesn’t interfere with the nests because they are protected species. The rehab work that I’ve done has been with sick and injured sea turtles that have come to our rehab facility. We deal with a variety of injuries like boat strikes or sicknesses, just illness, or predator attacks. I helped rehabilitate them, doing medical procedures and working with our team to make sure the animals are healthy enough to go back out into the wild.
Are we right in thinking your new job is at Disney??
I am working at Disney! Specifically, with the Disney Conservation Fund – my title is a Sea Turtle Research Associate. I literally just started, but I know that I’ll be involved with a lot of the various research projects. Also their beach conservation and beach surveys in Vero Beach, Florida where they mark and protect the sea turtle nests there.
We know that sand temperature is important for determining the sex of sea turtle embryos. Can you explain a bit more about that and are there any solutions your research team has for reversing the effects of warming sands?
At my previous job, we worked closely with Dr Jeanette Wyneken who does a lot of research with sand temperature and sex ratios of the hatchlings. From that data, we saw that in the past 5 years, 99.9% of turtles hatching out of our experimental nests are female. For reference, the warmer sand temperature will give you more females and cooler sand temperature will give you more males. As the planet gets warmer, Florida’s beaches are definitely getting hotter and hotter every summer.
One PhD student did some research with sprinklers on the nests which worked a little; that’s the only thing that I know that’s been done. When we have a really rainy season in the summer, usually our sand is a lot cooler. That’s because it’s raining a whole lot more frequently and heavily, and that seems to cool the nest temperatures down. Depending on the rainy season, that’s a way to mitigate that hot sand – also if the turtle nests are in the shade. If we had more dune vegetation on our beaches (a lot of beaches take away their dune vegetation for tourists), that can provide some shade for some of the nests, but not all of them.
Why do warmer sands = more females?
It is a very common thing for reptiles, for environmental temperature to determine what sex the hatchlings are. I know it’s true in alligators and crocodiles; I think it’s the opposite where warmer sand temperature gives you more males than females. I’m not sure it’s fully understood, but at some point in the developmental stage, there is a critical moment that determines if the sea turtle is going to be a male or a female.
Where did your personal love of turtles start? And how would you describe your happiest moment involving turtles?
I wasn’t interested in turtles until I graduated from college! There was a job, I got the job, and I started to like turtles more the more I worked with them. The more I learnt and worked with them in the rehab facility, the more I came to have a passion for them because they’re really cool creatures. There’s just so many happy moments; it’s really hard to not be happy with turtles.
I think the first time I saw hatchlings was a really exciting moment for me, just because they were really cute, and it was my first time seeing sea turtle hatchlings. They were leatherback hatchlings, so they weren’t very small, they were still pretty big! But it was just really cool to see. Any time we completely rehabilitate turtles that are extremely injured – that don’t look like they’re going to make it, but we end up releasing them – those are always really cool moments. Those are happy moments.
We’re aware that (as well as turtles!) sharks very much have a special place in your heart. Does seeing a turtle get attacked by sharks ever change the way you feel about sharks?
No – mostly because I’m biased, and sharks are definitely my number one love! But also because I understand the whole circle of life and sharks have got to eat. Unfortunately, a lot of sharks eat sea turtles especially in Florida’s waters. As a predator-prey interaction, it’s sometimes really cool to me to see a predator as strong as a shark being able to eat something that’s as hardy as a turtle. Their shells are hard, sometimes turtles are just really big, so you’re like ‘Wow, you must be a really powerful animal to be able to take a chomp out of this large sea turtle’. But no, I’ve never really had ill feelings towards sharks that eat sea turtles!
In addition to all your awesome shark and sea turtle conservation, you do a lot of work to encourage minorities in marine science. What are your visions for the future of these younger generations in shark, turtle and marine science?
My vision really for the future is that diversity will not be an issue. Being able to imagine yourself in a field where it won’t be surprising to see someone who looks like you. My vision is that there will be so much diversity that we won’t have to worry about making sure there’s enough representation in the field. In the future, our goal with MISS (Minorities In Shark Science), the organisation that I co-founded, is that we don’t want to be needed anymore. Who knows how long it’s going to take, but that would mean that we’ve solved the problem of representation and diversity in the field of shark and sea turtle science.
That’s my vision for the future, not to have to constantly push representation and diversity. It’s a good thing now because it’s needed, but we’re really hoping in the future it won’t be needed – where it’s normal to see someone that looks like me and not think ‘Wow I’m the only one…again’.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone wanting to get into the field of marine science or turtle conservation, maybe somebody who feels underrepresented, what would you say to inspire them?
My biggest thing is to never let anyone tell you what you can’t do. I had a lot of that coming up in this field! Keep remembering your passion, what you want and the first thing that got you excited in marine science. If you’re going through some hard times, always remember the passion and the reason why you started. Just push through and make sure that you’re doing what you want, and like I said don’t let anyone tell you what you cannot do.
You can only do what you think you can do, and what you want to do.
Keep up to date with Carlee’s work by following her on Instagram and Twitter and be sure to check out Minorities In Shark Science (@miss_elasmo on Instagram and Twitter) for some awesome content around diversity in marine conservation.
Wondering what you can do for turtles outside of nesting season?
Happy World Turtle Day!
Written by Lily Holbrook