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Friday, September 29, 2023

UF PhD student discovers record-breaking number of sea turtle nests at Disney Conservation

Rachel Smith and team document nearly 3,000 sea-turtle nests at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort

For the past six months, Rachel Smith and her team of conservationists at Disney Conservation loaded into their ATVs at first light and ventured along the scruffy sands and past the warm waters of the Disney Vero Beach Resort. 

As she travels further down the 5-mile stretch, she closely watches for footprints left behind by sea turtles in the peak of their nesting season. 

Raised in the desert land of Arizona by a family of conservationists she likens to “The Wild Thornberrys,” Smith, a UF interdisciplinary ecology PhD student and conservations program manager at Disney, carried an affinity for wildlife. Her passion for marine biology only grew stronger by the year as she joined her father on trips to the Sea of Cortez and Mexico. 

Her ambitions would soon take her to Florida, where she would lead the sea turtle program with Disney Conservation and accomplish an unprecedented feat for the organization, discovering over 1,000 more sea turtle nests at the Disney Vero Beach Resort than the last highest count in 2017. 

“I think in a way it was my destiny that I ended up doing this,” she said. 

After obtaining a master’s degree in coastal ecology from the University of North Florida and seven years at Disney Conservation, Smith felt there was still more to learn. 

In Fall 2019, her colleague, Ray Carthy, convinced her to enroll in the interdisciplinary ecology doctorate program at the UF School of Natural Resources and Environment, a decision that would contribute immensely to her accomplishments in Vero Beach. 

“I am a big believer in interdisciplinary science,” she said. “So, I was really motivated to come back … and excited to develop a project around exploring sea turtle interactions in our local fisheries.” 

Carthy, a UF Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit assistant unit leader, became Smith’s primary adviser. The two previously met at a southeastern regional conference, where they began to form a close friendship. 

“I have facilitated everything she has been able to teach herself,” he said. “One reason I encouraged her to come back for a PhD is because I saw the potential there.” 

Before Smith became a conservation programs manager for Disney Conservation in 2018, she started at the organization as a research fellow in 2012. It was during this time she began joining the conduction of sea-turtle-nesting surveys at the Disney Vero Beach Resort. 

In a game Smith calls “turtle CSI,” she and her team of researchers go to look for nests made by sea turtles on the shore of the Vero Beach Resort during early morning hours. 

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Upon discovering any, she conducts nest inventories to determine the reproductive success of each nest. She then sends the data she collects to the Indian River County Habitat Conservation Plan and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s statewide nesting beach survey program. 

“That way, we get a nice big picture of how the turtles are doing and population trends, and if there are any management actions needed at any given time,” she said. 

The nesting season of sea turtles usually takes place between March and October, Smith said. The first record Disney Conservation broke at the Vero Beach Resort was 1,677 nests in 2017. Now, Smith and her team are over 2,800 nests in, with a month remaining before the season comes to an end. 

“This year, we saw a record-breaking year for both loggerheads and greens, which is pretty exciting to see,” she said. “I think we’re still sorting out what that means, and why we had that influx of nesting this year.” 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the sea turtle program at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort. In addition to the team at Disney Conservation, the Sea Turtle Conservancy -- located at Northwest Sixth Street in Gainesville -- has been vital to the discovery efforts and record-breaking surveys this year, Smith said. 

Smith credits this year’s record to not only the contributions from the teams at Disney Conservation and Sea Turtle Conservancy but to the entire community of conservationists worldwide.

“I don’t think an outcome like this would be possible if we weren’t all working very closely together, staying in really good communication with each other,” she said. “We put the outcome of the animals ahead of any kind of individual academic pursuits.” 

In continuing the momentum of saving sea turtles, Smith advises engaging in responsible seafood consumption and abstaining from single-use plastics. 

“We’ve got a long way to go to recover wildlife and the environment,” Carthy said. “But [Disney’s efforts] certainly [are] a major contributor to it.”

As Disney Conservation enters its record-breaking 20th year of its sea turtle program, the team has so far recorded more than 20,000 nests and more than 1.5 million hatchlings since the program’s inception. 

Contact Jared Teitel at Follow him on Twitter @jaredteitel. 

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Jared Teitel

Jared Teitel is a third-year journalism major, and this is his second semester as an Avenue reporter. In his free time, he enjoys running, shopping, and drinking coffee. 

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