Kendra Cope, M.S.
Founding Director, Coastal Connections, Inc
Coastal Connections, Inc (CCinc) is located in Vero Beach, Florida and was incorporated in 2017 to provide opportunities for people to connect with coastal wildlife through educational and engaging programs. Studies have shown that people who interact with charismatic protected species, for example nighttime sea turtle walks in Florida, are more likely to feel connected to the focal species and will react by changing their behaviors to more educated and conservation-minded habits. In addition, ecotourism programs focused around protected species impel and increase eco-minded travel, attract more responsible visitors, and infuse more funds into the local economy surrounding the focal species than traditional tourism, thus, benefiting the entire community. CCinc uses this strategy and approach to benefit wildlife, people, and the local economy in all of our programs. This is what makes CCinc truly unique among Florida sea turtle conservation organizations.
CCinc has three main initiatives to meet their mission of protecting coastal habitats. These initiatives include: Vero Goes Zero, a sustainability initiative, Sea Turtle T.R.A.C.K.E.R.S., a sea turtle conservation, education and research initiative, and Sea Turtle Friendly Certified, a synergistic and incentivizing initiative which challenges businesses to be environmentally friendly. Each of these initiatives includes a multitude of programs to help reach initiative goals including:
Turtle Digs - These are FREE daytime public educational nest excavations. Hundreds of people regularly attend each event to watch CCinc conduct a full hatched nest evaluation while receiving an educational presentation, watching for the possibility of saving a straggler hatchling or two. This program has introduced 2,000+ people each summer to sea turtle conservation. All data collected during nest marking, daily nest monitoring, and nest excavation is provided to the County and State to be incorporated into annual reports and management strategies.
Turtle Stranding Rescue and Release - Volunteers also coordinate closely with the County, FWC, and rehabilitation facilities to respond to stranded sea turtles, transport turtles to rehabilitation centers and help facilitate large educational turtle release events on the beaches of Indian River County. Volunteers help with approximately 75% of the recorded stranding events in Indian River County each year.
Turtle Friendly Business - This is an incentivizing program that holds beachside businesses to novel standards to ensure the success of sea turtle reproduction on our beaches. Businesses voluntarily pledge to meet turtle friendly operating standards. For example, having on-site recycling, complying with local lighting ordinances, removing barriers to nesting from the beaches each day, and offering educational materials to guests.
The impacts of COVID-19 have extended far greater and longer than many initially imagined. The need for social distancing and new safety protocols has called for the cancelation of community outreach events, fundraising celebrations, and has challenged CCinc to adapt to a new normal. CCinc was awarded a $15,000 gift from the National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation to supplement financial losses due to COVID-19, allowing CCinc to grow, adapt and ultimately continue its impactful summer Turtle Dig program and redevelop the certification and inspection processes for Turtle Friendly Businesses, which will be initiated in Fall 2020.
During the months of July and August CCinc hosted twelve (12) COVID-19 adapted Turtle Dig events. In-person reservations were limited to allow for 6ft distancing during each event. A new “donut” like set up with 6ft distancing reminders was created to greet and space family groups to ensure the ultimate experience while remaining safe. Approximately 250 people were able to enjoy the on site events, not including beachgoers who were interested and listened from afar. However, the addition of Virtual Turtle Digs was new this year to provide the same connection and experience with those not able to attend in person. An estimated 10,000 viewers watched a Turtle Dig online safely from afar this summer, expanding CCinc’s reach and impact far greater than any previous year.
The National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation’s generous gift has also allowed CCinc to develop educational resources to provide to Turtle Friendly Businesses, including a Turtle-Safe Light Test. These free take-home tests were piloted by adults and children alike at the CCinc Turtle Dig education table this summer. This resource has become the perfect souvenir for those who attended a Turtle Dig, allowing them to take their new enthusiasm for sea turtle conservation with them to think about what they can do at home to help save our sea turtles.
If you would like to support Coastal Connections, Inc or become more involved in their programs and events, please visit their website and event calendar to get connected. www.coastal-connections.org/events. Please follow them on Facebook @coastalconnectionsinc or Instagram @coastalconnections_inc for regular updates on their impact in Indian River County and the Florida Treasure Coast. Our award-winning collaborative Sea Turtle Trunk Program created by Inwater Research Group (IRG) is reaching new heights! Until now, this Statewide program, which reaches tens of thousands of students each year, has relied on the usage of plastic model turtles that weren’t quite anatomically correct. The program teaches students about sea turtle biology and conservation through the use of these models so it was an important feature we just didn’t have…until now.
Recently, the National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation funded an endeavor to create new and improved sea turtle models based on a real juvenile green turtle encountered during a research trip. The turtle was part of a population study conducted by IRG in Jupiter, FL. While in hand, it was kind enough to allow us to take a number of photographs from all angles. The images were then used to create a 3D model created by our partners at Digital Life 3D (http://digitallife3d.org). This model is now being transformed into an anatomically correct, tangible model that will be a part of our Trunk Program in perpetuity.
Journey, as the turtle has been named, will educate hundreds of thousands of students over its “lifetime” and will bring a new atmosphere of authenticity to our programs. Children from all over Florida will learn what it means to be a sea turtle biologist and how they can protect sea turtles in their daily lives. We are so excited to take this Journey into the classroom and hope the students love it as much as we do!
National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation