I'll never forget the first time I saw a sea turtle in the wild. It was a muggy night in July, well after midnight, and I was standing on Vero Beach, on Florida's east coast, covered in equal parts sand and bug spray. The only light that night came from the moon and a few red flashlights. Itchy and tired, I had just spent the last three hours assisting staff members from Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), the oldest sea turtle conservation and research organization in the world (and my future employer), locate a nesting loggerhead sea turtle.
After hours of scouting, we finally found our turtle. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting but I was completely awestruck by the magnificent 300 lb. prehistoric-looking, barnacle-covered creature in front of me. Sure, I had seen sea turtles before while visiting aquariums, but that didn't even come close to what I was experiencing on the beach. I could hear the turtle's labored breaths! Having just finished crawling up the beach, digging a massive nest and laying 100 or so eggs, I'm sure she was tired. I could smell her! (Fun fact: loggerhead sea turtles can be super smelly because of the algae and other critters on their shells.)
That night, I truly felt like I was in the presence of a magical dinosaur that had somehow preserved itself for the 21st century. Laugh if you want, but I wasn't completely off with that hypothesis. After all, sea turtles are ancient marine animals that have been swimming in the world's oceans for over 200 million years -- appearing much as they do today. They were once so plentiful in the Caribbean that upon voyaging to the "New World," Christopher Columbus reportedly wrote that he could have walked to shore across the backs of floating turtles. Although millions once roamed the earth's oceans, by the mid-twentieth century, the number of sea turtles had declined by as much as 90 percent, and several species were on the verge of extinction.
Why? A main culprit was overhunting driven by global demand for turtle meat, eggs and shells. Not too long ago, having "turtle soup" was considered a delicacy and turtle shells were turned into "tortoiseshell" sunglasses, combs, and other trinkets. Fortunately, in most places today, it is no longer acceptable to eat or wear accessories made from sea turtles, and many countries have banned the hunting of these species and outlawed all trade in their meat, skin and shells. Despite such protection, sea turtles continue to be hunted in some parts of the world, and now face new human-created threats to their survival, such as marine pollution, climate change and artificial beachfront lighting.
But all hope is not lost! In the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's central Atlantic coast, the 2013 green turtle nesting numbers shattered all records -- giving real hope for the recovery of this endangered species. Throughout the 1980s, researchers rarely counted more than 50 green nests in the Carr Refuge, which was known primarily as a nesting site for loggerhead turtles. By the early 1990s, after the beach had been designated a federal refuge, green turtle nesting slowly climbed into the hundreds and over the last decade the number started to exceed 1,000. This year, the number of green turtle nests in the Carr Refuge surpassed 13,000 -- more than twice the previous record!
It seems like conservation success stories are few and far between these days, which makes the recent news about green turtles especially inspiring. To what do we credit this success? What we are seeing is most likely the result of over 30 years of conservation efforts really starting to pay off. These efforts have resulted in federal, state and international laws that protect sea turtles, while coastal land acquisition programs have preserved important stretches of nesting habitat such as the Carr Refuge.
While we celebrate this success story for green turtles, we must remain vigilant in their protection. All species of sea turtles continue to face a number of daunting -- and increasing -- threats to their survival. Sea Turtle Conservancy will continue to address threats to sea turtles here in the United States and abroad so one day all sea turtle populations will begin to recover as green turtles are doing now in Florida.
My own sea turtle experience that summer night on Vero Beach left me feeling so inspired, I knew I had to help preserve those magnificent creatures for others. What did I do? I pursued a career with the organization that started it all, STC. And now here I am!
So how can YOU become a part of this amazing success story? This #GivingTuesday, STC is excited to be a part of a global movement to give back and is encouraging others to support sea turtles by donating to our efforts. If we can raise $10,000 by December 31st, Sea Turtle Conservancy's Board of Directors will match this with a generous donation of $10,000! STC hopes to reach and inspire many more people to support efforts to save this ancient and majestic animal!
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll feature at least one post from a #GivingTuesday partner every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.
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