From the Blue of an SCA Intern to the Brown of FWS

Diana Gu on beach holding sea turtle hatchlingIn blue SCA garb and oversized nitrile gloves, Diana Gu holds the first excavated leatherback hatchling of the season.  

By Diana Gu

Former SCA intern and current wildlife technician, Diana Gu, checks in from Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

It’s 6:32 a.m. The itching around my ankles indicates that the sandflies arrived before the eastward sea winds could pick up and I’m generously applying mostly ineffective citronella to prepare for my morning nesting sea turtle survey.

I drive my ATV loaded with nest marking stakes, flagging tape, a sledgehammer, GPS unit, measuring tape, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer and my hatchling bucket through a dark tunnel of seagrape groves.

As I reach my start point at the south end of the refuge’s boundary on Jupiter Island, I look up at the pre-dawn sky and see the sun coyly creeping above the Atlantic. The water is calm and the sun is enormous, Lion King-esque, and sublime as it casts a warm lava glow on the gentle waves.  I breathe in the salty air and think to myself that sunrises have become a cliché for good reason—they are simply beautiful.

Brown pelicans fly over the water as the sun rises.
Brown pelicans fly over the water as the sun rises.

It’s still hard to believe that most of my work days really start like this. Nine months ago I arrived at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge as a SCA intern with a background primarily in botany, uncertain about my future, but determined to make the crossover to wildlife biology. Familiarizing myself straight away with protocols and guidelines from the state and our permit holder as well as the database was daunting to say the least. But after receiving training, attending workshops, and with the unflagging support and confidence of my boss and co-workers, I eventually felt at ease in the position.

Hobe Sound Refuge is small, and besides the refuge manager and a part-time fee collector, we depend completely on volunteers, interns and the nonprofit that runs our visitor center. When funding for a wildlife technician became available and I was offered the position, there was no hesitation in accepting it.

Diana Gu searches for a green turtle clutch to be inventoried for a Nest Productivity Assessment, this time in an FWS uniform!
Diana Gu searches for a green turtle clutch to be inventoried for a Nest Productivity Assessment, this time in an FWS uniform!

Today, I’m “wearing brown” (as Christine, the refuge manager, would say) and leading sea turtle, shorebird and exotic species surveys on a barrier island. It is truly is an honor and privilege to work here. As one of my volunteers pointed out, I look like something in between an Asian Adventure Barbie and a cardboard box, but I finally graduated from intern to completely legit name tag-wearing, benefits-receiving, uniformed, hired employee!

A nesting leatherback spotted during a survey. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle species weighing up to 1,500 pounds.
A nesting leatherback spotted during a survey. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle species weighing up to 1,500 pounds.

It’s hard to imagine a job could be any better than this one. Every day feels a little surreal. My backyard is the Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse estuarine system in the Northern Hemisphere. People from all over the world flock to the island to their multimillion dollar vacation homes and reserve coveted spots on our sea turtle night walks months in advance.

Whenever I have a long survey where there’s 90+ crawls to investigate and record, it’s 100 degrees out, a thunderstorm threatens, or I’m lying in a hole in the sand and on hour 2 of locating the clutch of a leatherback nest, I just remind myself that this is the life. Even on my worst days, I’d still rather be moments from a natural disaster or heat exhaustion than sitting through hours of monotonous meetings, working for the weekend, and wondering what life would be like as a field biologist.

sea turtle hatchlingThis green sea turtle hatchling found during an excavation for the Nest Productivity Assessment is ready for release.  

The work we do is challenging but immeasurably rewarding. Our refuge has one of the longest data records for sea turtle nesting of any beach in the United States. This year the Treasure Coast collectively produced record breaking nesting numbers thanks to decades of battling urban night glow, removal of beach debris, and of course continued research and public outreach.

It’s an honor to be part of the process, and I wouldn’t have been able to do so without the opportunities, experience and mentorship the SCA and the refuge provided me.