Archive for December, 2008

Nature’s Wonders — Ritz-Carlton, Vanderbilt Beach, Naples

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Nature’s Wonders, Ritz-Carlton, Vanderbilt Beach, Naples

A real natural treasure has sprouted in North Naples at the Ritz-Carlton off Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples.  Tucked away in a relatively compact space on the ground floor, the Ritz-Carlton team has created a truly exquisite center for exploration and discovery.  Thanks to unity of vision, design and execution, Nature’s Wonders offers a coherent and comprehensive venue for hands-on learning, sereptiously disguised as family fun.  The Turtle Journal team awards its highest honor, Five Turtles, to Nature’s Wonders as an exemplar for communities and environmental outfits from coast to coast to demonstate how intelligence, enthusiasm and coherent design can transform a small space into a first class center for natural discovery.  (The Turtle Journal team whispers one phrase of caution.  A camel is a horse designed by committee [a.k.a. consensus].  Unity of vision, design and execution makes all the difference between mediocrity and excellence.)


Ranger Randy (Sarton)

During our recent visit to Nature’s Wonders, Ranger Randy Sarton proved a gracious and very informative host.  Randy knows his stuff.  He’s knowledgeable about Florida’s coastal environment and habitats.  He has collected a wealth of natural treasures for the center’s tanks and displays, and Randy has created a wide range of curricula (a fancy, educator’s word for hands-on discovery and fun) for family adventures.

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Ranger Randy Guides Us Through Nature’s Wonders

 Touch tank to illustrate local marine treasures, coral tank to showcase the splashy colors of Nemo’s world, laboratory for hands-on discovery, display cases, posters, computers and a marine theatre.  A bit like Dr. Who’s Tardis, Nature’s Wonders expands into a full-sized marine science center once you enter its magical world.

Sea Turtles – Signature Species in SW Florida

Sea turtles and especially loggerheads mark a key species in the natural habitat of Florida’s southwest coast with females digging nests on the beach in front of the Ritz-Carlton.

Nature’s Wonders Laboratory

Nature’s Wonders sports a fully equipped laboratory for more detailed hands-on exploration of the natural world.


Nature Vision

There are no rainy days in Florida, or so you may have heard.  Well, at Nature’s Wonders, there really are no rainy days with a built-in Nature Vision theatre to offer a second look at discoveries witnessed in the field or a first look on those few moments when Nature turns on its sprinkler system to keep Florida plush and green.

Full Schedule of Indoor and Outdoor Adventures

Taking full advantage of Florida’s “perfect” weather and rich natural habitat, Ranger Randy and the Ritz-Carlton team lead adventure walks, field trips and boat cruises, expanding from the Nature’s Wonders center into the natural world at large.

Something Sinister This Way Cometh – Lightning Whelk

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Lightning Whelk (Busycon perversum) from Vanderbilt Beach

Here comes a southern sinister snail to greet the New Year.  Large local whelks, channeled and knobbed, found in the Great White North of Cape Cod are considered right-handed; that is, when the whelk is held with the spire up and the siphonal canal down, the shell exhibits a dextral aperture.  For more information about these local northern whelks, see The Large and the Small of It (Whelks).  From Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples, Florida comes a more sinister snail.  The lightning whelk, when held in the same orientation as described above, is considered left-handed with a sinistral opening.  It surely earns its scientific name “perversum.”

Lightning Whelk (left) and Channeled Whelk (right)

The lightning whelk is a predatory snail that can be found as far north as New Jersey to Florida and the Gulf states in the south.  They prefer sandy and muddy bottoms of shallow embayments, but choose deeper waters than knobbed whelks.  Lightning whelks are large predators who’s principal prey include bivalves.

Channeled Whelk (left) and Lightning Whelk (right)

Another difference between lightning and channeled & knobbed whelks is that lightning whelks have lower or flatter spires.  They are all edible species and have been historically consumed by humans. 

Lightning Whelk (Busycon perversum)

The lightning whelk is the state shell of Texas.

The Present of Presence – Terrapins off Long Island

Thursday, December 25th, 2008


During this special time of year when warm seasonal greetings are openly exchanged among friends and strangers alike as tokens of good will and shared community, Turtle Journal received the best gift of all: the present of presence.  Two dedicated boaters from the Greater New York metropolitan area separately called the hotline (508-274-5108) to report the presence of diamondback terrapins on the north shore of Long Island this past summer.  While we won’t reveal the exact area to protect the privacy of these shy and elusive critters, we hope that other boaters and beach goers along the Long Island shore will let us know about other sightings.  This information will be provided to researchers at Hofstra University and conservationists at the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society.

These avid boaters recently read Northeast Boating editor Tom Richardson’s article in the December issue, Terrapins Among Us, and recalled their summer encounter with turtles on the north shore of Long Island near Huntington and Oyster Bay.  In several decades of boating in Long Island sound, they had never seen a terrapin.  Then, on this one day as they slipped into a protected estuary and steered to a sheltered anchorage near a salt marsh, they spotted nine diamondback terrapins!  When they saw Tom’s story, they sent him an email and followed up with the phone call to the Turtle Journal team.  They were surprised that after all these years patroling the sound, and poking into protected estuaries, they had finally caught a glimpse of these elusive creatures that have been called a “Big Foot” of coastal ecosystems, because they’re so often discussed and so rarely actually seen.

Thanks to Tom Richardson and Northeast Boating for spreading the legend of diamondback terrapins and a special thanks to his readers who care enough about habitat conservation and protecting rare species that they went out of their way to ensure that their sighting was formally documented.

Gopher Tortoises “Puttin on the Ritz” in Naples, Florida

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

While one half of the Turtle Journal team battles the “Cold Full Moon” of December in the Great White North, the other half explores wildlife along the sunny Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida.  While one half ducks icy rain that has cut electrical power for a million residents of frozen New England, the other snaps pictures of golden sunsets on tropical beaches.  A perfect illustration of the inherent unfairness of life!  And a demonstration of the unselfish dedication of the Turtle Journal team to venture anywhere, even to wildnerness of sunny Florida in winter, to obtain exciting material for its readers.  You go, Sue!

Ritz Carlton Hotel, Naples, Florida

The team’s favorite hideout in the Naples area is the fabulous Ritz Carlton Hotel off Vanderbilt Beach Road.  Situated on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, any west facing room affords postcard views of the sea across a lush strip of semi-tropical vegetation.  Within that micro-habitat resides a wealth of nature and critters, including a small population of very fortunate gopher tortoises — a threatened and diminishing species in Florida and neighboring Southeast States.

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“Puttin on the Ritz” (Carlton, Naples, Florida)

The Ritz Carlton takes justifiable pride in its grounds and in preserving habitat and conserving species on its property.  Still, when I think of these tortoises building burrows and mounds in one of the goldest of the gold coast properties in southwest Florida, I can’t get the Irving Berlin tune “Puttin on the Ritz” — especially the version as presented by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein — out of my mind. 

Gopher Tortoise between Ritz Carlton Hotel and Beach

Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are fairly large land turtles.  As the name “tortoise” implies, they have elephantine feet in the rear.  The front (gular) scutes of the plastron (bottom shell) project forward under the neck.  They are found in well-drained, sandy uplands at the edge of pine-oak and beach scrub woodlands in the warm, semi-tropical Southeast States.  They need lush greenery as a food source and open sunshine for viable nesting.  The more these elements are present within their habitat, the higher the density of tortoises within that habitat.  These turtles alter their environment through burrowing, mound building and grazing, creating biodiversity that improves the habitat for gopher tortoises.  The symbiotic partnership between the staff of the Ritz Carlton and the tortoises themselves maintains a high quality micro-habitat for these magnificent, yet threatened turtles.  For more information on gopher tortoises, we recommend Turtles of the United States and Canada; Ernst, Lovich & Barbour; Smithsonian Institution Press.  Click here for a gopher tortoise fact sheet.

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Gorpher Tortoise Habitat

As with all turtles, gopher tortoises disappear within the camouflage of their environment.  Especially during the cool season in southwest Florida, tortoises spend lots of time inside their burrows until daily temperatures get warm enough to move them to begin browsing.  Even when rumbling about their habitat, tortoises blend in perfectly with the vegetation that renders them almost invisible.  Whenever we interview locals, including groundskeeping staff and naturalists, they tell us they never see the turtles any more.  The same is true for us when we first arrive; it usually takes a couple of days to reorient our search image so that we can begin to pick them out from their environment.

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

In the coolness of the morning, and during stormy days, tortoises can be found at the entrance to their large, sturdy burrows.  Later in the day as temperatures climb they emerge and begin browsing for food.  When disturbed, tortoises speed back to the safety of their burrows. 

Gopher Tortoise Mound between Ritz Carlton and Gulf Beach

The strip of upland vegetation between the sandy Gulf beach and the developed grounds of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and nearby, high rise condominium complexes is dotted with burrows and mounds, as pictured above, and populated by a nice density of gopher tortoises.  These areas are well posted to avoid disturbance by the deluge of guests who invade these perfect Gulf of Mexico beaches year-around, and the vegetations is thick and wild enough to discourage casual trespassing.

Gopher Tortoise at Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida

For the Turtle Journal team, no trip to Naples would be complete without a visit to these noble turtles.  Somehow, “dumb animals” have discoverd a way to spend their lives in a Garden of Eden on the Gulf of Mexico, maintained at peak condition by a staff of “intelligent humans” who would have to save all year for a chance to spend a weekend in a concrete box overlooking this tortoise paradise.  Gives one pause about how we define “dumb” and “intelligent” creatures.

Loggerhead Days of December

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Rescue >>>

         >> Triage >>>

                       >> Treatment >>>

                                          >> Rehab >>>

                                                       >> Release

Don Lewis Examines Lively Juvenile Loggerhead

When we last reported on sea turtle rescues in the Great White North, Turtle World Turned Upside Down, waves flash froze on frigid beaches and ocean water had transformed to icy slush within the intertidal zone.  No sea turtle could survive those conditions when tossed ashore by coastal storms.  In the interim, temperatures moderated, ice and slush melted, and live turtles once again have been recovered from Cape Cod beaches. 


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Sea Turtle Patrol of Truro Beaches at Sunset

Any search for cold-stunned sea turtles yields special moments as your mind constantly molds and shapes objects into patterns that may, or may not, represent a stranded animal.  But no beach walk is as dramatic as a sunset or dawn patrol.  When twice daily tides align so that the first high comes at sunrise, and the second at sunset, the experience transcends magical.  In Disneyesque fashion, clumps of distant seaweed morph into turtles, then decompose back into seagrass as you approach.  A gust of wind breathes life into debris that rises like a distressed seal, then deflates to become an abandoned buoy once again.  It’s a smart game your brain plays to keep adrenaline levels high to ensure peak attention and focus.  Otherwise, your thoughts would drift and your senses would become overwhelmed by pounding surf, howling winds, and miles and miles and miles of mind-numbing sameness.

Live, Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley among Wrackline Debris

These mental gymnastics keep senses sharp and ready for immediate action when that clump of seaweed, shaped like a turtle, really is a stranded sea turtle in desperate need of rescue.  Such was the case of this juvenile Kemp’s ridley overturned by the surf and deposited among piles of wrackline debris.

Juvenile Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

In Cape Cod, sea turtle strandings are driven by physics as much as biology.  Obviously, ectothermic biology leads to cold-stunned stupor as these tropical and semi-tropical animals are beset by plunging water temperatures in the bay each fall.  But once cold-stunning begins, biology surrenders to physics.  Effects of the cold are felt earlier by less massive sea turtles.  Smaller Kemp’s ridley strand earliest in the fall with larger and larger turtles coming ashore as the season progresses.  Wind and sea drive these stunned turtles ashore, with less massive turtles easier to move than heavier animals.  The result:  ridleys first and loggerheads last.

We warm-blooded rescuers thank the gods of biology and physics for this blessing.  We cut our teeth early in the season lugging five to ten pound ridleys along the beach, building muscles and endurance to be prepared for the 50, 75 and 100 pound loggerheads to come.  About the time that the calendar flips from November to December, loggerheads begin to dominate the rescue scene … and our backs strain accordingly.


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Loggerhead & Ridley Turtles in Triage

After patrolling beaches, rescuers drop off cold-stunned sea turtles at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.  In the triage center set up in the sanctuary’s wet lab, senior experts examine, evaluate and stabilize animals before transport to the New England Aquarium in Boston for medical treatment.  By this time in the stranding season, more massive turtles have the better chance of survival, giving the edge to larger loggerheads over smaller ridleys.

Loggerhead Survived Earlier Shark Attack

This loggerhead with a large section of its left rear quadrant missing was a survivor of a probable shark attack.  The wound and the shell had healed well.  After beating 999-to-1 odds to reach juvenile stage, after surviving a shark attack in which a large chunk of its rear quadrant was lost, it seems a tragic shame that this turtle would succumb to hypothermia because of the accident of glacial geology that formed the giant seine net called Cape Cod.

Shark Attacked Loggerhead from 2000 Stranding Season

Eight years ago almost to the day, on 3 December 2000, a juvenile loggerhead was found on a Brewster beach.  It, too, had survived a severe shark attack that had taken a huge piece of its right rear  quadrant, including its right rear flipper.

Healed Shark Wound on Juvenile Loggerhead

The wound had healed so well and so long ago that a marine community had taken residence.  You can make out the small blue mussels nestled along the edge of the chomped shell.  Again, this loggerhead had survived a viscious shark attack only to succumb to cold-stunning in Cape Cod Bay.  The story of this loggerhead can be found at Shark Attack!

Triage to Treatment

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Kemp’s Ridleys and Loggerhead Go from Triage to Treatment

Once live turtles have been evaluated and prepared, volunteers drive them to the New England Aquarium in Boston for intensive medical treatment and to begin their rehabilitation.  Kemp’s ridleys are small enough to fit in banana boxes donated by the local Stop & Shop in Orleans.   Inside these sturdy boxes, soften by donated fluffy towels, turtles can be contained safely during transport. 

Loggerheads are “a whole ‘nother” story.  They don’t really fit in banana boxes and even if they did, loggerheads are so rambunctious they might break through the sides.  Many a night we would leave the sanctuary with a “comatose” loggerhead resting comfortably in triage drydock, only to find the room re-arranged in the morning by these powerful pelagic tanks.  Several drivers have been forced to pull over during the long ride to Boston, because a loggerhead had decided to drive the rest of the way itself.  When loggerheads get well enough for rehabilitation, they can never be kept in the same pool with another turtle of any species.  Too aggressive.  Each loggerhead has its own recovery pool … which brings us to the last, long leg of sea turtle rescues: rehabilitation.


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91-Pound Loggerhead in Rehab (2002)

(Story of This Rescue at The Big One That Didn’t Get Away)

After adventurous rescues from frigid Cape Cod beaches (RESCUE), after rigorous assessments and stabilization in triage at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (TRIAGE), after emergency medical treatment at the New England Aquarium in Boston (TREATMENT), the real heavy lifting begins (REHAB).  For months, and on rare occasions even for years, these rescued turtles go through intensive rehabilitation.  Hospital-clean pools, daily medication, frequent examinations and x-rays, enrichment activities, and feeding, feeding, feeding, followed by cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.  Medical care staff, sea water-equipped facilities, medical supplies, constant supervision, volunteers, and food, food, food.

Media Cover Sea Turtle Medical Treatment in Boston

Turtle rescuers often get public acclaim because scouring the beach on stormy nights sounds so risky and adventuresome.  Triage receives news coverage because it’s the first time reporters can get visual access to these tragic looking critters for the morning edition.  Emergency medical treatment in Boston steps into the limelight as metropolitan television stations and newspapers click pictures of high tech ER equipment and gowned personnel racing at “stat” pace.  But rarely do cameras and journalists penetrate the daily grind of rehabilitation to document months of yeoman sacrifice to bring these animals full cycle from rescue to release.  Rehab personnel and centers are the unsung heroes of the sea turtle rescue process and Turtle Journal salutes them.

Fletcher” Admitted to National Marine Life Center for Rehab

On Thursday, the National Marine Life Center — a key Cape Cod rehabilitation facility — admitted Fletcher, a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle that stranded at Fisher Beach in Truro on November 29th.  Fletcher spent his first week in medical treatment at the New England Aquarium in Boston.  He weighs 23.5 kilograms (~ 52 pounds) and  measures just over two feet long.  Active, alert and swimming well, he shows no visible signs of injury.  Fletcher ate for the first time on Friday and received his first meds at NMLC.  Welcome, Fletcher!  And thank you, rehabilitators!

New National Marine Life Center Animal Hospital in Buzzards Bay

(NOTE:  The National Marine Life Center will open the doors of its new marine animal hospital in Buzzards Bay this coming year.  Stay tuned to Turtle Journal for progress reports on this exciting new “life raft” for marine critters in the Cape Cod area, a well known global stranding hot spot.  For those who may be interested in supporting this exciting initiative to save marine animal lives in the Northeast, contact the NMLC at 508-743-9888 or email the NMLC Development Team.)