Turns out failing to reach a lease agreement with the city of Port St. Joe for space at George Core Park may have been a blessing in disguise for the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center.
In the wake of an impasse with the city, the county stepped forward and offered the Florida Coastal Conservancy and its Sea Turtle Center space at the former building department building.
The facility at 1001 10th Street, which opened as the Sea Turtle Center last month, provides some 2,000-square-feet of space and acreage around the building that will become part of the center’s overall outreach.
It is also located to take advantage of traffic to adjacent facilities such as the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society, Port St. Joe Public Works and the county’s building department.
“We are excited about this,” said Jessica Swindall, volunteer coordinator with the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol, for which the Florida Coastal Conservancy operates as a non-profit arm.
“All you see here is the result of donations and volunteers. We have no income. This is all volunteers. It is amazing to see how far it’s come.”
The expanded space will allow the center to host programs such as “Turtle Talks” for children of all ages (hint, including adults) without concern about the weather.
Those talks will most likely be scheduled for each Monday during the turtle season which begins May 1.
“We want to do them early in the week so visitors will know what to do when they are on the beach and see a turtle,” Swindall said.
The center’s multi-media system will broadcast videos about turtles and their survival in the main room, which will also feature a painted mural of native plants and animals.
The county’s Master Gardeners will enhance the outside landscape, transforming one area to natural habitat for turtles.
Two turtles are already call the center home, a red-foot tortoise and another species of tortoise, neither natural to this area of Florida.
They were donated to the center after being rescued in Central Florida.
The center will be, literally, the center of much of the activity around turtles during the coming season.
The new building offers several bedrooms to house interns from the University of Florida in the area to conduct sea turtle research.
The interns will also take over turtle surveys in T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
In addition, due to the damage to living quarters at the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve, the Sea Turtle Center will also provide lodging for researchers.
“We have a hub now,” Swindall said. “This (facility) gives us a headquarters so we can expand what we are doing.
“We will all be working closer together.”
The interns will also help man the Sea Turtle Center, providing visitors the opportunity to learn about their efforts while the interns hone speaking and explanatory skills, Swindall said.
Three weeks out from the beginning of the 2019 turtle season, Swindall said preparations are ongoing, supplies stockpiled and volunteers training.
The 2018 season did not end badly; Hurricane Michael’s arrival came within three weeks of the close of hatchling season.
And, on St. Joseph Peninsula, the turtle patrol volunteers, in preparation of a beach nourishment project that never got going, had relocated nests to choice locations further north up the beach.
“We lost nine of 137 nests so it was not that bad,” Swindall said. “Typically, we would have lost some of those if we had not moved them.
“I think the impact will be felt this year because the landscape has changed. The concern is disorientation. We lost a lot of dune structure, the beach is much flatter and that brings in new lighting sources.”
Predicting success during a turtle season defines crapshoot, but the peninsula had seen an uptick in recent seasons.
The emphasis, however, is the same: keep the beach clean, dark and flat, as in filling in holes and the like.
“Hopefully as people are making repairs and replacing light fixtures, they remember about replacing them with turtle-safe lighting,” Swindall said. “That is what I am most worried about, disorientation and lighting.”
Through the rest of April, the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center is open 12-4 p.m. ET Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Beginning May 1, the center will be open Monday through Saturday.