A Gator fights to protect one of the world’s most majestic — and endangered — creatures
In the night, the leatherbacks crawling from Florida’s moonlit waters look like glistening dinosaurs. As large as kitchen appliances, the goliaths are the rarest of the three sea turtle clans in the state’s northeast, and, most springs, the first on shore to dig their nests. They can arrive a month or more before their smaller cousins, the loggerheads and greens.
Near the northernmost point for Florida’s nesting turtles is Ponte Vedra, a seaside village on Jacksonville’s far fringe. Nancy Condron walks the beaches here in search of the tell-tell tracks that announce the annual return of the leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens. The wide, grooved paths cut from dunes to ocean, left behind by turtles dragging themselves through sand to deposit their eggs.
For Condron and the sea turtle patrol she manages, the hunt for nests is a race against beachgoers and homeowners. Without protection, eggs and hatchlings might not survive to summer’s end. And, longer term, neither will the sea turtle.
This troubles Condron.
“As the sea turtle goes, the ocean goes. And as the ocean goes, the earth goes,” she explains.
“So if the ocean goes, we’re dead.”
A Safe Harbor
Not far from where Condron’s patrol watches over its scenic four-mile beach, the University of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Laboratory hugs the coastline. The hospital is a safe harbor for sick and injured turtles. It’s also a refuge for hatchlings too weak to make the journey from their nests to the sea and those washed back to shore in the waves.
Condron (MBA, ’86; JD ’86) is among the hospital’s fiercest champions, and one of the neighbor naturalists who willed it to be.
“It all grew from a funny idea we would discuss over lunches and nest stakes [used to mark new turtle nests],” collaborator Catherine Eastman says. “First it was, ‘I think we can do this.’ Then it was, ‘Holy mackerel, we’re doing this.’”
Rewind to nesting season, 2012. Condron, then the new coordinator of the Mickler’s Landing Sea Turtle Patrol, was looking for someone to show her how to improve data collection; Eastman, the longtime captain of her own team at nearby Vilano Beach, had been recommended. Once introduced, it didn’t take long for conversations to turn to turtle care.
“Nancy has a huge heart for conservation,” says Eastman, now the sea turtle hospital’s program coordinator. “Her wish was to help the [hatchling] stragglers, a place where the underdogs could go to get a little bit healthier before going into the ocean.”
Eastman, on the other hand, wanted to bring more public attention to the plight of the endangered sea turtles, Condron says.
We have to have a purpose that’s bigger than ourselves. To go through life just buying or doing things for ourselves isn’t enough.
— Nancy Condron —
UF’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience seemed a logical choice to do both. After all, the women reasoned, scientists there studied the sea, the lab is well-known on Florida’s First Coast and connected to one of the nation’s finest universities. Besides that, UF’s famed Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, two hours south in Melbourne, could be a valuable resource. And with no other clinic in the area able to treat turtles harmed in fishing nets, sick from discarded garbage, cold-stunned when temperatures chill or dealing with other ailments, the Whitney Laboratory appeared to be a no-brainer.
But there was a snag. A big one. The Whitney Laboratory hadn’t been designed for animal care. At the time, it was mostly meant for discovery and teaching. To change that, Condron offered seed money to establish a hospital, and she and Eastman explored sea turtle clinics in Florida and Georgia on a fact-finding mission to determine what the Whitney Laboratory’s new hospital would need.
“We have to have a purpose that’s bigger than ourselves,” Condron says of her work to protect sea turtles. “To go through life just buying or doing things for ourselves isn’t enough.”
Forward to October 2015, the hospital’s grand opening. Four tanks, each bubbling with 1,100 gallons of saltwater, waited for patients. Within its first 12 months, 10 turtles would be rehabilitated there and returned to the Atlantic.
Less than three years later, spring 2018, there’s an emergency room, a nursery for hatchlings, community education programs and a focus on stopping the virus that causes bulbous pink, grey or black tumors to grow on the gentle creature’s flippers, carapaces, plastrons, necks and faces — warming waters and pollution are to blame, it’s suspected. Veterinarians at the young hospital have earned a reputation for removing the burdensome tumors. With demand booming, the Condron family gave another $5 million this year so the hospital and lab could expand.
That expansion is a game-changer, Whitney Director Mark Martindale says. It means more discoveries, a new incentive for world-class researchers to join the university and global visibility for the lab.
“It’s been a really exciting opportunity to merge the strengths of our local environment, sea turtle biology and the University of Florida’s research prowess,” he says.
“I am extremely amazed and pleased and proud of what we’ve accomplished so far,” she says. “But Nancy and I both want it to be bigger than us and to last beyond us. It’s more than just Nancy and me. It’s about the turtles. Our end goal is we want this to last beyond us.”
Condron Family's Gift to Whitney Lab
The Towel Freak
At the sea turtle hospital, Condron is affectionately known as the “towel-folding control freak” — a nickname from her fellow volunteers who marvel at her talent for folding towels in such perfect manner to maximize shelf space. Condron is at the hospital most Fridays. Towel duty is one of her chores. Cleaning tanks and preparing the green turtles’ feeders are two of the many others — and she’s just as focused and precise when doing those tasks.
“Nancy doesn’t mind folding towels. Really, it’s that she’s here. She’s here with us, working her butt off,” Eastman says. “She gets in the mix with the rest of the team.”
Grunge work suits her, Condron admits. It’s not uncommon for the former lawyer to be asked to serve on various boards or committees, and her answer is always a polite “no.”
“I’d be bored,” she says. “But I’ll do laundry at the hospital every Friday. Or clean tanks. I like to be hands-on. I like to be doing.”
That’s good news for Florida’s turtles.
A few years ago, Condron became aware of how lethal helium balloons are for turtles. Deflated balloons are mistaken for jellyfish, a favorite meal for leatherbacks, Olive ridleys, Kemp’s ridleys and flatbacks. To protect the sea turtles and other wildlife, Condron helped lobby for a ban on helium-filled balloons in St. Johns County. To illustrate the seriousness, she showed commissioners her “balloon monster” costume — an old raincoat covered with balloon skins that were picked from the beach during turtle patrol.
And last summer, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction, Condron again faced down neighbors for the sake of sea turtles. Some Ponte Vedra homeowners who were rebuilding after the storm were violating environmental protection laws, such as building longer-than-allowed walkovers to the sand, planting non-native vegetation planted on dunes and allowing yard irrigation to drain onto the beach. The violations were putting nesting turtles in danger, Condron argued, and she fought to make sure abuses were fixed.
“My personal goal is to educate my neighbors,” Condron says. “To get them to understand that what’s good for the sea turtles is good for them. And that what’s bad for the sea turtles is bad for them and bad for the beach and bad for their property.”
“Tenacious,” is how Eastman describes her friend’s commitment to conservation. “She’s stubborn — in a good way.”
Which is why, on late spring and summer mornings, Condron and her volunteer Mickler’s Landing Sea Turtle Patrol gather on the beach before sunrise to find and mark new nests, monitor clutches and make sure hatchlings aren’t disturbed. Their work is making a difference. Each season for the past 10, the nest count is a little more promising, with more than 100 expected on Ponte Vedra Beach alone this summer. Last year, in all of St. Johns County, 638 loggerhead nests were reported, 52 nests for greens and seven for leatherbacks.
“Now, when people spot nesting turtles on the beach, they know to stay away,” Condron says.
Nevertheless, there’s much, much more to do, she insists. Sea walls, human encroachment and pollution are some of the biggest challenges. Walls, for instance, can block prime nesting spots and cause nests to wash out, killing hatchlings. Concerns like those are fueling Condron’s next project: starting a statewide coastal conservation league, similar to one in South Carolina.
People shouldn’t count out Condron’s conservation league idea, Eastman warns. The Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Laboratory is proof of her determination. The hospital — which wasn’t even a twinkling of thought not long ago — now treats sea turtles from a long swath of Northeast Florida beaches, she points out.
“That whole 43 miles of coastline, people know what we’re doing at the hospital. We couldn’t have done all this without Nancy,” Eastman says. “She’s a cool lady.”
The world’s seven sea turtle species have been around for 110 million years. Sea turtles cannot retract their legs and heads into their shells. Their diets depend on the subspecies, but common are jellyfish, seaweed, crabs, shrimp, sponges, snails, algae and mollusks.
Sea turtles live in warm and temperate waters throughout the world. Most undergo long migrations, some as far as 1,400 miles, between their feeding grounds and nesting beaches. Five species — loggerheads, greens, leatherbacks, Kemp’s ridleys and hawksbill — nest in Florida.
Sea turtles, like salmon, return to the same nesting beaches where they were born. Females dig their nests with back flippers, bury their eggs and return to the ocean. Hatchings emerge at night and may take as long as a week to dig themselves out of nests.
Green sea turtles can stay under water for as long as five hours. Their heart rate slows to conserve oxygen: nine minutes may elapse between heartbeats. Adult leatherbacks can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and be more than six feet long.
In Florida, some manmade threats to sea turtles are artificial lights that draw hatchlings inland; beachside construction and “property armoring” that destroys nesting habitats; plastics and other garbage that’s mistaken for food; fishing nets and shrimp trawls that ensnare turtles; oil spills; and beach furniture that blocks nesting turtles and hatchlings.
Sources: Defenders of Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Florida Fish and Wildlife