After Hurricane Devastation, Sea Turtle Scientists Rebound, Help Rebuild

Seven months after their home base in the Florida Panhandle was demolished by Hurricane Michael, U.S. Geological Survey sea turtle researchers are headed back into the field on May 1, the start of nesting season for Florida's sea turtles.

USGS research biologist Margaret Lamont and her four-person team had just wrapped up their field season last October when the hurricane swept through Cape San Blas, part of a peninsula separating St. Joseph Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. When it struck, Michael was classified as a powerful Category 4 storm, but a new analysis by the National Hurricane Center revealed it was actually a Category 5, one of the four most intense hurricanes on record to hit the U.S. Its 160-mph winds and storm surge destroyed Cape San Blas. Lamont lost the house she had used as a research station for 10 years, two pick-up trucks, and four all-terrain vehicles used to access sea turtle nests along several miles of beaches.

The team evacuated before the storm made landfall, quickly saving equipment and years’ worth of data. Since then Lamont has been rebuilding her research program while helping residents of the town where she has worked for almost 25 years. 

“We will have a field season. It’ll just be different. We’ll adapt,” she said. “We’ve also focused on joining friends and neighbors and helping to rebuild this community that we have become a part of.”

Sea turtle science in St. Joseph Bay, Florida

Lamont, who is based at the USGS’s Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Gainesville, Florida, has studied sea turtles on Cape San Blas since 1994. She leads a team that conducts nightly surveys along the shoreline from May 1 to November 1. After a female sea turtle has laid her eggs, the biologists insert a tag, much like a microchip used in pets, into her left shoulder for future identification. They also collect biological samples and measurements, like shell length and width. A few turtles receive transmitters that track their movements via satellite. The team also tags and takes samples from other sea turtles foraging in St. Joseph Bay, where the animals gather to feed in some of Florida’s most pristine seagrass beds.

Lamont’s work shows which areas these endangered and threatened species use for feeding, nesting, and migrating. That information helps the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement assess the risk to sea turtles from Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operations. It also helps nearby Eglin Air Force Base manage sea turtles on its property, and informs local communities’ decisions about beach driving, night lighting, construction permits, and road work. Lamont also collects the only population-level data for the genetically distinct population of loggerheads in the northern Gulf of Mexico, so all management decisions for this group of turtles rely on her work.

Fast-growing hurricane prompts speedy evacuation

The day before Hurricane Michael hit Florida, Lamont’s team—contractors Kyle Cunningham and Dan Catizone, former contractor David Seay, and student contractors Carson Arends and Joseph Alday—evacuated the rental house that served as their workplace and home, loading a pick-up truck with science gear and personal belongings.

“It was more like throwing gear into the truck. We literally yanked the bedding off mattresses and shoved it into any available space,” said Lamont. They grabbed almost everything from the house including laptops, satellite tags, cameras, and a small freezer containing months’ worth of samples, including sea turtle skin, blood, and pieces of carapace, or shell.

When the team began packing Tuesday morning, Hurricane Michael was a Category 1. When they left the island at 2 p.m., it was a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 129 mph.

“When I woke up Wednesday, I grabbed my phone, held it in my hands, and whispered, ‘Please, please, please let this have died down,’” said Lamont.

But the storm had intensified overnight. It made landfall Wednesday at 2 p.m. about nine miles west of Cape San Blas, officially the strongest storm on record to ever hit the Panhandle. Generations of Cape San Blas families have endured hurricanes, but never one like this.

Storm wiped away scientists’ field headquarters

Lamont’s husband, a pilot, flew over Cape San Blas the next day to get a bird’s eye view of the destruction. Lamont asked him to take some aerial photographs of her field sites and the rental house. These photos revealed that the house was gone.

She shared some of her husband’s photos with a Facebook group for local homeowners, and quickly got requests for images of other homes and businesses. Lamont stayed up late that night sorting photos to share with property owners. Some were relieved to find their homes and offices still in one piece. Others were not so lucky.

Five days after the storm hit, Lamont returned to Cape San Blas. Standing amid wreckage, she tried to comprehend the damage.

“It’s like a tornado hit, not a hurricane. How do you put this into words? You can’t,” she said.

Since the storm hit, Lamont’s team has made several trips to Cape San Blas to assess their rental property and field sites, working out of Eglin Air Force Base. They collected food and emergency supplies donated by friends, family, and colleagues and brought them to relief centers, and helped neighbors clear debris from their homes.

Turtles weather the storm

When Michael hit, six tagged turtles were in the bay: a Kemp’s ridley, a loggerhead, three greens, and a diamondback terrapin, an estuarine turtle that lives in brackish waters.

Lamont received location readings from the loggerhead and terrapin about four hours before the storm made landfall. The loggerhead, nicknamed “Lightning,” was detected the next day. The terrapin’s tag went silent for 24 hours before transmitting again. The lack of data for that block of time raises interesting questions about terrapin behavior, Lamont said.

“Satellite tags can’t transmit when their antenna is covered, so we wonder if she burrowed down to protect herself from the storm,” Lamont said. “Terrapins are known to do this during cold weather, so it may be a strategy to avoid environmental disturbances, including hurricanes.” 

The three greens were heard from post-storm, indicating they survived. The Kemp’s ridley was detected the night the storm hit but has not been heard from since. “Her last known location was close to where the storm made landfall, and in an area affected by storm debris,” Lamont said. “We’re hoping the tag was damaged and we see her again in St. Joseph Bay.”

Hurricane Michael isn’t the only recent hardship to affect St. Joseph Bay sea turtles. When a cold front swept through the area in January 2018, the cold-blooded animals’ metabolisms slowed so much that they couldn’t swim or even lift their heads out of the water to breathe. Lamont, other scientists, and volunteers recovered more than 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles and brought them to Gulf World Marine Park, where they stayed until they were healthy enough to return to the bay.

“Between the mass cold-stunning event, reported red tide impacts, and now, Hurricane Michael, these turtles have been through the wringer,” said Lamont.

Researchers prepare for field season

The field season will focus on assessing whether sea turtle distribution, habitat use, and feeding behavior is different post-storm. The team captured several terrapins in St. Joseph Bay after the storm, a sign that the population fared well. Lightning, the tagged loggerhead, is still transmitting. After spending the winter in nearby waters, she returned to the bay in March. "Her track has been shared on the Cape San Blas homeowners' Facebook page," Lamont said. "She has come to represent the strength and resiliency of the area."

Lamont and her project partners, like the non-profit Florida Coastal Conservancy, are working together more closely than ever, sharing boats, trucks, and personnel. Florida Coastal Conservancy has converted several offices at their Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center into bunk rooms for Lamont’s summer interns. Other team members are in temporary quarters and plan on renting a duplex now under construction.

While Lamont rebuilds her field research program, residents of Cape San Blas are rebuilding houses, offices, and roads.

“The spirit of the people never left, and neither did the wildlife and natural beauty of the area,” Lamont said. “Shorebirds are starting to nest again. White-tailed deer have been spotted in the state park. The sand on the beaches is still sugar white and the water is crystal clear,” said Lamont. “While I sometimes cry when I drive through town, I feel incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to be a biologist in such an amazing place.”

Among the stacks of boxes haphazardly filled with gear during the evacuation are a few pieces of blue and white tile from the floor of the now-gone field house. Lamont said she pulled the pieces from the wreckage to create a sea turtle mosaic that will hang in the new field house, “whenever that may be.”

“It’ll help us remember our former home and the memories we made there,” said Lamont. “It will also serve as a reminder of the resiliency of this small Florida town we’ve learned to call home.”

See USGS press release