Charles LeBuff with a Jeep from his nonprofit, Caretta Research Inc., in 1991. COURTESY OF CHARLES LEBUFF

FL - Sea turtle SAVIOR

A patriarch of sea turtle conservation, Charles LeBuff is true to his mission

TOP: Charles LeBuff inspects a loggerhead turtle while she nests. ABOVE: Leaders from some of the Caretta Research Inc. units, circa 1978.

Charles LeBuff inspects a loggerhead turtle while she nests.

SUMMER’S EBB AND FLOW ON FLORIDA’S beaches during sea turtle nesting season has become a familiar routine. Stakes in the sand bearing yellow caution tape cordon off nests. Sometimes there are chicken wire covers in the sand to foil critters who dig up turtle eggs for a tasty treat that doesn’t fight back. Ordinances require beachgoers to remove furniture and level sandcastles by sunset, lest the massive mothers become entangled or babies get trapped in moats.

Nocturnal beachcombers may not use flashlights or flash photography, outdoor beachfront lighting must be dim, amber colored and aimed downward, and indoor lights must be draped from beach view or turned off completely, since lights disorient turtles. And, of course, driving cars on beaches is long gone (except in a handful of places such as Daytona).

But how did these protections for sea turtles come about? Governments passed the laws and ordinances. Park employees or volunteers with environmental nonprofits perform much of the protective nest marking, with some organizations lucky enough to have the budget to employ professional researchers.

Leaders from some of the Caretta Research Inc. units, circa 1978. COURTESY OF CHARLES LEBUFF

But who began the work to protect sea turtles in Florida?

In Southwest Florida, the answer to that question is Charles LeBuff, who started as a wildlife technician in the late 1950s with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at what is now J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. While the position’s main duties focused on law enforcement, he extended into collecting statistical data about sea turtle nesting, first on Sanibel and then, with the help of volunteers, at multiple beaches along the Gulf Coast and even some east coast beaches.

As the founder of the first sea turtle monitoring program in Florida, he was the holder of a state-issued sea turtle research permit — the number on his permit was 001. Given he did some of the earliest nesting research, monitoring and protection in the state, the 86-year-old Mr. LeBuff is a patriarch of Florida sea turtle conservation.

“My turtle interests go back to when I was a kid,” Mr. LeBuff said. “In 1990, I wrote a book on loggerhead turtles, and the late Dr. Peter Pritchard (a renowned turtle conservationist who earned his zoology Ph.D. at the University of Florida) wrote the forward. He made an interesting observation that almost all kids love turtles, and some of us just never grow up. I count myself among those, as he did.”

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