the turtle lady retires
“My legs got old, but the experiences never did.”
Sharon Maxwell is not the type of woman to take no for an answer. And thank goodness for that. After 25 years scouring the sand for signs of a nesting sea turtle, she officially retired from the organization she created—South Walton Turtle Watch. While it wasn’t an easy decision to step back, she knew the timing was right.
“When I started there was no one but me! There’s not a stretch of beach I didn’t walk,” she said. “My legs got old, but the experiences never did. There is nothing like seeing a hatchling go into the water. Or seeing those little heads pop up out of the sand. There is no other feeling like that.”
Looking back, she can’t help but laugh at how she began her quest to become the official “Turtle Lady” of Walton County.
Even though she lived on the north side of the Bay, she’d always loved a good walk on the beach. On several occasions she came across sea turtle nests that had either been dug up by an animal, or a curious beachgoer. After learning no one was protecting the nests along Walton County’s beaches, (or documenting them) she attended a presentation given by US Fish and Wildlife Biologist Lorna Patrick. Inspired by her work throughout the state to document and protect nesting sea turtles, she left her phone number with Lorna in case someone who lived closer to the beach needed help monitoring sea turtle nests.
And then she waited for a phone call. And waited. And waited. And thought about making the 30+ mile drive in darkness each morning for six months straight. Finally, she got tired of waiting for someone else to do what needed to be done and she did it herself.
She began walking every day after sunrise. Seven days a week. In rain, chilly weather, and sun she walked Walton County’s 26 miles of beach. After a few weeks she got a call from Al Murphy, who had been given her name by Fish and Wildlife. Together, the pair divided up the beach and diligently recorded and counted nests and false crawls when they found them.
“We went to this end of the year meeting in Panama City and all these people who held official state permits were there,” Sharon said. “We had no authority; we were just doing this. But we wanted to report that we’d found 25 nests in Walton County. Do you know what they did? They laughed at us!”
In 1995 South Walton Turtle Watch became a 501c3 non-profit organization. With a lot of perseverance SWTW became the official turtle monitoring organization for Walton County, and then the organization became an official Fish
and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Permit holder.
“Keep up with what you believe in,” said Sharon.
South Walton Turtle Watch now manages and coordinates a small army of dedicated volunteers who walk Walton County beaches daily from
May 1–Oct. 31 in search of a crawl mark or signs of a nest. The organization also educates the community about ways to help sea turtles.
“We have grown so much! The educational budget has grown too,” she said.
SWTW volunteers often give sea turtle talks to students and gift flashlights with red lightbulbs, amber flashlight covers, and laminated photos of crawl marks to empower students to identify a possible nesting.
She sees the educational component of SWTW as the key to its long-term success.
“Teaching is a grand opportunity because you can’t care about something unless you are in tune with it. Finding a crawl and knowing a mama sea turtle laid a nest that night…I loved every minute of it.”
Sea Turtle Facts
- Sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
- Loggerhead and Green Sea Turtles typically nest on our beaches.
- Nesting season is May 1–Oct. 31.
- Hatchlings are guided to the Gulf by the moon. White lights confuse them.
- The temperature of the sand determines the sex of the hatchlings.
- Sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs
- Mama sea turtles lay about 100 eggs in a nest and tend to lay 3–5 nests.
- In 2021, 624 hatchlings made it to the Gulf in Walton County.
How you can help
- Fill holes you dig on the beach!
- Don’t leave chairs, tents, or anything on the beach!
- Use red or amber outdoor lightbulbs in Gulf-front homes and shut curtains and blinds at night.
- Use red covers or flashlights
with red bulbs when on the
beach at night.
- Respect marked nests and keep your distance.
- Call *FWC or 850-865-4503 if you see a sea turtle.
- Visit southwaltonturtlewatch.org to learn more.
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