Like the turtles that wander the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, Jessica Swindall traveled a weaving path that led her to her life’s work. Today, she runs Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center in Port St. Joe.
Jessica’s family vacationed for years along the Forgotten Coast of the lower Panhandle. When she graduated from the University of Alabama in 2007, she and her husband decided to move south.
“My bachelor’s degree was psychology, so my animal really is humans,” Jessica says with a laugh.
After moving to Florida, Jessica took odd jobs and volunteered at St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve—a Florida agency working to protect the bay’s critical habitats. She was asked to assist with the bay’s turtle population, so she joined St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol, which monitors turtle activity and nesting.
“I really loved the area and I wanted to do something helping the environment,” Jessica says, noting she fell in love with the turtle patrol.
In 2010, Jessica was hired to coordinate the patrol’s volunteers.
Her first year was a baptism by fire.
“In January, we had a cold snap,” she says. “We had 1,800 green turtles wash up on the beaches of St. Joseph Bay.”
When temperatures dip below 55 in the shallow bay’s water, the region’s endangered green turtles lose control of their muscles, Jessica says, noting that without being able to lift their heads, the turtles may drown.
When a cold front arrives in the Panhandle, Jessica calls the trained volunteers and those who serve as transporters. Volunteers walk the shoreline looking for injured turtles, triage the reptiles and send them to Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach for safe keeping until temperatures warm.
But the challenges of 2010 were not over. In midsummer, the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill happened during the loggerhead nesting season.
Jessica mobilized volunteers again, this time to transport loggerheads and their nests to Cape Canaveral on the eastern coast of Florida.
During the spill’s cleanup, biologists arrived from across the country.
The experience motivated Jessica to return to school. She earned a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida.
The following year, Jessica, U.S. Geological Service biologist Meg Lamont and volunteer John Ehrman formed the nonprofit Florida Coastal Conservancy to raise funds for outreach and education to protect the turtles of St. Joseph Bay.
Today, Jessica serves as director of the conservancy, where she educates visitors to the center. She also remains the patrol’s volunteer coordinator, ready to call people to action should the need arise.
“We’ve had lots and lots of volunteer help,” Jessica says. “A lot of volunteers are snowbirds. It’s a great opportunity for them to be involved in the community. Some of them will give the shirt off their backs. They’re wonderful.”
Volunteers spend late spring recording nesting activities. Starting May 1, about 25 volunteers will start checking 7 miles of beaches on St. Joseph Peninsula. They record false crawls, meaning there’s signs of turtle activity but no nests; the creation of new nests; disorientations where turtles have lost their way; and nest washouts from high surf events.
“I have the fun part of sitting in the office and recording all this information on a computer,” Jessica says facetiously.
She does get out of the office to lead educational activities, which include free turtle walks, where visitors shadow volunteers, view turtle nests and learn the volunteer’s job.
“They get a firsthand look at why it’s so important to do things we do to help the turtles,” Jessica says.
A highlight of the conservancy’s outreach is the Sea Turtle Festival the Sunday before July 4 in the heart of Port St. Joe.
“Everyone loves turtles,” Jessica says. “Everyone’s coming to the beach at the same time as the nesting (May through August), so it’s a good opportunity to spread a conservation message.”
The center also informs people on how to make a difference, selling special low-light bulbs and explaining how to eliminate all traces of human activity on beaches after a day of fun.
“Clean, flat and dark” is the center’s motto on how to keep the beaches clean without lights. When turtles come ashore to nest, they follow lights and will end up in streets and backyards.
“We’ve found them in swimming pools, we’ve found them in carports,” Jessica says.
Although her landing in Port St. Joe determined her career in wildlife conservation, her first degree still comes in handy. The people she meets and influences on how to be better environmental stewards are a vital component to her work, she says.
“I love this job,” Jessica says. “The human-wildlife interface is what I really love.”