Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle

The Most Ridiculous Game of Hide & Seek

Standing at the kitchen sink I couldn’t help but feel a little off. As I scrubbed the dinner plates clean, I tried to shake the notion that I was rocking back and forth, but nothing worked. I stared at my static feet and leaned on the motionless counter. Yet on I rocked. Back and forth right up until the moment I flipped on the garbage disposal. The sudden whirl of the motor quickly faded into the pulse of an outboard engine. “The boat!” I thought to myself at which point it all began to make sense. After a week of working out on the ocean, I had finally found my sea legs, but like a pair of skinny jeans my mind was still struggling to take them off.

The jarring thud of a boat wake hitting the hull of the old mullet skiff sends shutters through my feet and forces me to adjust my stance in preparation for line of waves still to come. As the final wave rolls under us, Conservancy Research Manager Dr. Jeff Schmid nudges the throttle forward urging the boat out of Coon Key Pass and deeper into the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

While we motor along the coast, I take in the flat horizon of the Gulf. The way the ocean mirrors the sky and the clouds sit atop an invisible table; a phenomenon caused by vertical stratification of air temperature resulting in a distinct altitude at which water vapor condenses into clouds. These waters teem with life. An endless array of fish and dolphins constantly leap into the void between their watery homes and the clouds above while birds swoop and dive into the sea for their dinner, forever emphasizing the interconnectedness of the two worlds as they sew them together with their fluid movements.

These shallow coastal waters attracted wildlife long before people ever took to them and it’s one of those ancient suitors that we’re here to study.

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) is not only one of the smallest sea turtles; averaging just 2 feet long and 100 lbs, it is also considered the world’s most endangered. Precipitous declines since the 1950s, due in large part to human activity, resulted in barely 700 nests being produced on Mexican beaches in 1985. A mere drop in the bucket compared to the 40,000 plus females that came ashore in 1947 during just one arribada — a nesting behavior exhibited by some species during which large numbers of females gather to nest at the same time. Conservation efforts of the last three decades have brought them back from the brink of extinction, but they’re not out of the woods yet.

Dr. Schmid has been studying Kemp’s ridleys for over 30 years, following them up and down the west coast of Florida. He was taught by among others Archie Carr’s right hand man Larry Ogren, which I believe would in turn make him Archie Carr’s right-hand man once removed. After spending many years under his tutelage using radio sonic tracking and satellite tags to plot the movements of these turtles, Jeff has now begun to add diet analysis to his research as well.

Satellite tag locations of a Kemp’s Ridley in the study named Casper

Most recently, his research hopes to answer the questions of where the major feeding grounds are for these endangered turtles and what they are feeding on? Using satellite tags Jeff can track their movements, but to understand their feeding behavior he analyzes two things.

  1. Fecal samples collected from the turtle.
  2. Stable isotope analysis of both the skin and blood of the turtle and tissue from possible food sources (i.e. crabs & tunicates) in the study area.
Left: Blue Crab, Middle: Spider Crab, Right: Iridescent Crab

Bounding across the turbid waters of the gulf we indulge in the usual boat banter about our uneventful weekends, honey do lists and boating etiquette. The latter of which I’ve finally started to understand after many trips to these waters. The palpable yet unspoken tension that’s passed on through unenthusiastic (or sometimes overly enthusiastic) waves usually based off of assumptions fills the air between boaters. “Don’t wave about the shoulder” Jeff informs me as a commercial fisherman driving a similar boat to ours passes by. You never want to seem to eager out here I guess.

In theory our mission is simple. Catch a sea turtle, but in practice…it’s another story.

Key ingredients to a successful trip, in no particular order are: patience, calm seas, clear skies, and a good sense of humor.

Patience, because these turtles can stay underwater anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes at a time.

Calm seas, because even just a few inches of chop is enough for a turtles head to hide behind as it comes up to breath.

Clear skies, because overcast skies cause the ocean to reflect white or grey which happen to be the colors of a ridley’s head.

And finally, a good sense of humor because as the hours pass on without sign of a turtle, it can start to feel like the worlds most ridiculously unfair game of hide and seek you’ve ever played — a thought that often has me imaging them laughing to each other as they cling to the bottom of the boat or pop up behind us as we look in the other direction.

As the condos on Marco Island becomes engulfed in smoky gray clouds to the north we sit baking in the sun, scanning the waters around us for that infamous white head while my toes dip into the water at the crest of each wave. Out here the thought of my feet being submerged never ceases to conjure up images of the 300lbs tarpon roaming these waters and the 500lbs great hammerheads that can bite them in half. Not feeling like tempting fate today, I pull my feet up bit higher chalking it up to a “logical” fear.

After an hour of searching, we accept that we’ve thoroughly searched the area and slowly move to get up and idle to another location, but before we can even get to our feet a ridley breaks the surface not 10 yards off the bow. With new found urgency, we rush into position as I grab the tangle net buoy and Jeff grabs the wheel. Bracing myself against the back hatch, I wait for the word as we motor towards the spot that it came up hoping to get ahead of it. “Now!” he yells and with as much energy as I can muster I heave the buoy off the stern as far as I can without going with it. With the net ripping out of the back we make a wide circle around where we are hoping the turtle is never fully knowing for sure in these dark waters. Once the net closes up, it’s back to the waiting game. We’re not always successful and even when conditions are perfect they can still slip the net, but luckily this time everything has come together and we’re able to pull in one of the elusive reptiles.

With the turtle on the deck we quickly pull the rest of the net in then get to work examining the animal.

Injuries: none

Tag scars: nope

PIT tags (microchip): clear

With those checked off we draw a few milliliters of blood and take a biopsy punch (a small piece of skin) to be used in the stable isotope analysis. All of this is done as a part of the diet study in order to better understand where the animal sits on the food chain. The basic idea behind all of it being that “you are what you eat”. That what you consume will leave detectable traces in both your skin and blood.

As turtles like the one we captured migrate up and down the west coast of Florida and beyond they may swim through a variety of marine protected areas (MPA), but while they maneuver in and out of state and federally protected waters the management practices change. Jeff’s project is just one of many that hopes to not just put more emphasis on the importance of marine protected areas, but also the importance of cooperatively managing the many areas that these animals utilize. Sea turtles evolved in a world devoid of humans and hence they pay no mind to the boundaries that we’ve placed on the world. There may be no physical difference as it swims from one side of the boundary to the other, but management wise there is a big difference and the protections that were afforded to it in a particular protected area or countries waters may not be granted as they continue onward. This makes not only having cohesive regional plans important, but also national and international

With quitting time looming in our minds the normally calm Gulf urges us home as it grows dark and ominous. Storm clouds roiling in the comfort of their own shade as they blot out a sinking afternoon sun send bolts of lightning into the sea as pelicans glide away on their down drafts.

Motoring back through the no wake zone outside Goodland, the smell of burgers and seafood wafts out over the channel from Marker 8.5, but I remind myself that dinner is being made for me at home and sigh at the thought of doing dishes.

Jeff’s research activities are conducted under NMFS permit #13544 and FFWCC permit #136. Satellite transmitters are funded by private donations to the Conservancy. Additional funding is provided through grants awarded from the Sea Turtle Grants Program which is supported by proceeds from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate. Learn more at

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