SARASOTA, Fla. – After spending years volunteering at annual events and participating in board meetings, Christina Pitchford, broker-owner of Suncoast Homes and Dreams in Sarasota, decided she wanted to be “more hands-on because it makes me feel whole,” she says.
Growing up near Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, a marine research organization based in Sarasota, Pitchford learned about their Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program. “I’ve been a volunteer for Mote for a long time, since I was a teenager,” she says.
Then, in 2015, Mote was looking for “smart and reliable volunteers to patrol the beach to monitor existing sea turtle nests,” she says. Because the program requires volunteers to patrol the beach early each morning throughout the nesting season (April through October), not everybody can keep with the commitment, according to Pitchford.
“I shadowed a person one day, and I got hooked,” she says. “Essentially, I wake up early and walk a two-mile stretch of beach before anyone else is out there, which is quite lovely.”
Pitchford checks for new and hatched nests, and also monitors existing nests to make sure they haven’t been compromised by animals who like to eat the eggs or by humans who accidentally damage them.
“Unofficially, I pick up trash on the beach and alert trained responders about injured birds or other marine life as needed, but my focus is on the turtle nests,” she says.
Volunteers are carefully screened by Mote Marine Laboratory to ensure they are trustworthy and understand protocols.
“I patrol Lido Beach and generations of families have been coming to the same condos and hotels for years. One time, I walked up to a turtle nest that had hatched, and I had to follow the tracks of about 80 to 100 baby turtles,” she says.
In that case, lights were on in some of the condos, so the turtles went towards the artificial light instead of towards the water. “Dozens and dozens of tracks were headed right up to the pool, and the turtles could easily walk straight through a patch of grass to the parking lot and a busy street,” she recalls.
Pitchford says there are specific protocols to follow when issues arise. She immediately called Mote Marine Laboratory, who sent trained responders out to help properly direct them back into the water.
“Inevitably, people come out and want to help and all they can do is find the turtles; they can’t touch them,” she says.
Pitchford says that she is motivated to give back because of her brother, who was severely disabled with cerebral palsy.
“Our family just helped (with whatever was needed.) Everyone is different and you fill in the gaps for people around you and help,” she says. “There are times in my life when I wasn’t volunteering as much and it just didn’t feel right. I don’t feel whole when I’m not giving back.”
She notes that there are all kinds of ways to help out every day – just being kind and present with who you’re with, and aware of what’s going on.
“One of the things I love about turtle patrol is that people see you at the beach and are very interested in what you’re doing,” Pitchford says. “They want to talk and share their experience, their love of turtles and help pick up trash. It’s good to be reminded that people really do care.”
For more information on Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and its Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program, go to mote.org.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s sea turtle activities are conducted under Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Turtle Permits 027, 054, 070, 048, 028, and 216.