Neal- Five College Coastal and Marine Sciences NOAA Internships, Florida Everglades
From May through July of 2014 I lived at a field station in Southwest Florida as part of the sea turtle program through the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve. This internship and accompanying stipend came through the Five College Coastal and Marine Sciences NOAA Internship Program. While anyone can apply to this program, priority goes to students working on their independent study project towards their Marine Sciences Certificate.
My work was located in the Florida Everglades in an area known as the Ten Thousand Islands. A team of volunteers, another intern and myself monitored six beaches by boat and on foot for sea turtle tracks and nests. If the tracks were found then our team recorded measurements and location by GPS so that the nest could be located later. If the tracks looked like they lead to a turtle nest then we would try to find the eggs by digging deep down into the sand. This was strenuous work that hurt our hands, but finding the eggs made all our efforts worthwhile. Then a protective cage would be placed over the area to shield the nest from raccoons and bobcats. Predators account for 50% of all turtle egg deaths, and since only 1% of sea turtle eggs will make it to adulthood, protecting them at this stage is extremely important to sea turtle conservation. About sixty days later after incubation the eggs will hatch and 80-100 baby turtles crawl to the ocean at night. My other job was to check on the nest after it had hatched to determine how many baby turtles came out alive. Sometimes I would find hatchlings still alive in the nest but unable to escape, so I helped them out of the nest and released them to the ocean myself. Additionally, with the help of an ArcGIS specialist and great mentor Jill Schmid, I began a research project in Florida to see how sea turtle nesting density and beach erosion changed throughout the past five years. Barrier islands, such as the ones I patrolled, are extremely susceptible to change because of the constant bombardment by storms. The beaches where many turtles normally lay their eggs could become lost to the ocean. This project will be useful to better understand a changing coast so that better educated decisions about sea turtle conservation and beach management can be made.
This internship was a great way to help protect the environment while simultaneously learning how to drive a boat, work with a team, and complete a research project. Although this internship required a lot of hard work, patience, and an open mind, I feel that this it has helped me become a much better biologist. Finally, I would like to thank the Office of Undergraduate Research and Studies for their help with the application process.