COVER STORY

For the love of sea turtles


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 2:25 p.m.

At the right time every summer, the Smith-Appelson familypacks up the car and drives to Melbourne Beach, site of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and also the most heavily nested sea turtle nesting beach in all of North America.

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Gary Appelson, center, and Suzanna Smith, right, travel with their daughter Jesse Smith-Appelson to Melbourne every summer to watch seaturtles nest.

"[Sea turtles] have been coming there for millions of years," says Gary Appelson, who is the Sea Turtle Survival League advocacy coordinator at the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) and Sea Turtle Survival League (STSL). Founded in 1959 by the late Dr. Archie Carr, the University of Florida biologist, naturalist and author who was considered the world's leading authority on sea turtles, the CCC/STSL is the oldest and widest-reaching sea turtle conservation organization in the world (www.cccturtle.org). It's also the organization responsible for the popular sea turtle conservation license plates in Florida.

"People love sea turtles. They're majestic animals. They look exactly the same as they did tens of thousands of years ago," says Appelson, whose life work has been animal and environmental conservation.

"They're also highly endangered." Appelson says sea turtles could be the largest contributor to nutrient loads on Florida's coastline, making them irreplaceable to the ecosystem.

Appelson's wife, Suzanna Smith, is a professor in family, youth and community sciences at UF. Smith says one of the things that interests her most about the turtles is that they travel the world's oceans for 20 or 30 years, then return to the same beaches on which they were born to nest. It's a puzzling phenomenon called "nesting beach fidelity." Appelson, Smith and their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, have been returning to Melbourne each summer for the past five years, ever since Appelson began working with the CCC. "On the way in, we stop and we get groceries, and we're always really antsy to get to the beach," Smith says.

"On the beach it's pitch black for miles, and the waves are crashing, and we're walking slow. It's kind of spooky for the kids," says Appelson of his family's late nights. "You can barely see, and you're looking for tracks in the sand, and if you see a set of tracks, that tells you that a turtle has come up."

Jessica may be one of the littlest, but most earnest, sea turtle advocates in the world. While on the pitch-black seashore during the nesting, she will notify observers who come with flashlights that only use special red lights that will not frighten the mother turtles away. She also encourages carefree strollers to watch where they're stepping.

"Sometimes people are just senseless, and they'll walk right through the dunes," the little girl says, adding that, once a mother turtle has dug her body pit and begun laying her eggs, a cautious observer can approach the turtle and rub its shell, agitating the microscopic fluorescent animals living there and causing the shells to "glow and sparkle." ("Once they start laying eggs, they're kind of oblivious," Smith explains.) "I think it's kind of amazing," Jessica says.

"I find it awe-inspiring that you can still go to places and see one o these remarkable rituals of nature," her father adds. "We always fee very lucky to witness it. It's a spiritual thing for us."

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