Before George Gray started the Emerald Coast Turtle Watch (ECTW) in 1994, he worked at the Gulfarium for 22 years where he was in charge of the sea turtles.
“I can tell the sea turtle species by the way the animal crawls,” Gray said.
Now, he’s in his 24th season of protecting sea turtle nests on Okaloosa Island and Destin beaches from May 1 to October 31.
Every day at 4:45 a.m., Gray rides his ATV up and down Destin’s beaches, checking on the sea turtle nests that are cordoned off to the public, looking for fresh turtle tracks and any new nests that might have been laid overnight.
His oldest daughter and his son help him check on the nests in Okaloosa Island.
“If you don’t love this, you can’t do it,” Gray said.
Late last month, Gray received a call about a rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle laying eggs in Destin.
“The amazing thing about this animal is that they’re small — about 100 pounds,” Gray said. “They’re the only species that nests during the daytime. That’s how I knew it was a Kemp’s.”
Gray pointed at the nest. Eight stakes were driven into the ground and bright orange tape outlined the perimeter. Yellow signs warned the public not to walk on or disturb the nest, and yet a smattering of footprints dotted across the once smoothed-over sand.
“These are adult footprints here. I wish I knew why people did this,” Gray said.
After subtropical storm Alberto swept through Destin over Memorial Day weekend, the Kemp’s Ridley nesting site accrued about one to two feet of extra sand on top of the eggs.
“At least it didn’t get washed away,” said Gray, who said he is going to talk to the state to see if he can take about a foot of sand off the top of the nest, making it easier for the hatchlings to crawl up and out to sea.
Gray said that this is the first known documented Kemp’s Ridley nest in Destin.
“I was so excited to get over here when I got the call," Gray said. "I came right over here and got to see her heading back into the water.”
According to National Geographic, the Kemp’s Ridley is the world’s most critically endangered sea turtle species and can live to be 50 years old.
Gray hosts a Turtle Walk and Talk presentation every Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. through October. Members of the community are encouraged to sign up through the Emerald Coast Turtle Watch Facebook page.