© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2002
Drifting a weed line 20 miles from shore, waiting for the fish to start biting, a sea turtle breaking the surface only can be taken as a good omen.
Whether trolling for kingfish, scuba diving or enjoying an offshore sail, spotting a sea turtle in the wild is enough to call it a good day.
That's why the folks at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are trying to teach Tampa Bay's younger residents to love, protect and preserve these denizens of the deep.
"Kids love turtles," said Joe Malo, who runs the Aquarium's Carretta Cruiser program. (Carretta is the genus name for the loggerhead sea turtle.) "When we go into a classroom, they are nothing but questions."
What do they eat? Where do they live? How many babies do they have?
Malo tries to answer these and other questions, hoping the youngsters will emerge from his classroom as stewards of the environment.
"I tell them how a plastic bag from a picnic at the beach can end up in the water where a sea turtle might mistake it for a jellyfish," Malo said. "It starts them thinking."
Malo's van, the Carretta Cruiser, is brightly painted with a sea turtle theme, thanks to a grant from the Pinellas County Environmental Foundation, which in turn is funded through events such as this weekend's Spring on the Flats fishing tournament (More details, bottom left).
The tournament, one of two major fund-raisers for the foundation, gives anglers a chance to do their share for the environment.
"The programs that receive funds directly impact the bay," said Tom Tamanini, a Tampa-based charter boat captain and this year's tournament director. "It is a chance to make a difference."
Sea turtles need our help, in Tampa Bay and throughout the state.
Most of Florida's sea turtle nests are found on the east coast. These reptiles spend the majority of their lives underwater but breathe air and nest on dry land.
Loggerheads nest in the Tampa Bay area, but the odds of seeing a nesting turtle are slim unless you head to the east coast and join a guided tour.
About 60 days after the turtles lay their eggs, the hatchlings will scramble from the nest and instinctively head toward the water. On their sprint to the sea, the young loggerheads are easy pickings for birds. Then they must contend with hungry fish. Even a full-grown loggerhead can become shark food.
Another enemy is man. Turtles are a traditional food source throughout the Caribbean. The eggs are prized in many cultures as an aphrodisiac.
Thousands of the reptiles also are killed each year in commercial nets. Some turtles die when they eat plastic bags they mistake for a favorite food,jellyfish.
Human interference on nesting beaches also creates problems. Some turtles may be scared away if humans appear. And hatchlings have been known to become disoriented by the artificial lights of beachside developments and walk into roads.
That is why it is important that beach residents keep lights out during the nesting season, May through August. In addition to providing educational programs, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium operates an extensive turtle stranding and nest monitoring network.
If you would like to find out more about the "Lights Out!" campaign or volunteer your time, call (888) 239-9414, ext. 224.