Do the turtle walk

Savannah Chastain
A fishing boat deckhand by day and an avid sea turtle monitor by night, George Gray offers free educational turtle walks to share his wealth of knowledge on the wildlife of the Emerald Coast.

George Gray would never admit it, but he is a local expert on sea turtles here on the Emerald Coast. Known fondly on the Destin docks as, “The Sea Turtle Man,” Gray is the official sea turtle coordinator for Okaloosa County.

“When I first got started, I was a trainer at the Gulfarium and I got into turtles by working on strandings and salvages,” Gray said. “There was a need for an actual nesting a stranding service so in 1994 I started one after I was called by the County TDC (Tourist and Development Council).”

Gray told The Log that his 22 years working for the Gulfarium, coupled with his time volunteering with Eglin Air Force Base’s Natural Resources Branch, the Jackson Guard, gave him the knowledge to identify the species of a turtle by its tracks alone.

“The two main turtles we see here on the Panhandle are the Loggerhead and the Green turtles,” he said. “Those are the only two I have ever had, but in the panhandle there have been a couple Leatherbacks and a few Kemp’s Ridley turtles.”   

Today, Gray leads free educational sea turtle walks with Emerald Coast Turtle Watch twice a week during nesting season which runs from May to October.

“I try to be as informative as I possibly can,” said Gray. “For the walk itself we’re going to be talking about the lighting and why the light on Okaloosa Island and Destin is so important for the hatchlings because the least amount of white light and these hatchlings will turn and go North instead of South.”

Gray explained that during the walk he is the only one allowed to carry a light based on state guidelines.

In years past, sea turtle nests were abundant on Okaloosa Island, with the biggest year for Gray being 2012 with 18 nests discovered. This year, however, Gray said only five nests have been found in Okaloosa County, all located in Destin.

 “I started this turtle walk last year and I had 14 nests all on Okaloosa Island,” said Gray. “I could check out a nest every time I went on a walk.”

So far, this year’s turtle walks have been strictly led on Okaloosa Island due to lack of parking near the Destin nesting sites or the case of nests being located on private property.

“I would love to see a crawl, which would turn out to be a nest,” said Gray. “But I want people to know that the odds of us finding a nest are very small, but you never know.”

Although finding a nest or witnessing a turtle crawl may be a rarity, the knowledge to be gained from a walk with Gray will be well worth the time spent.

“I’ve probably got over 35 years involved with sea turtles, which is over half my adult life,” said Gray. “I love what I do. I’ve gotten more experience than most people will have in their lifetime, and a major part of that has been working with animals.” 

WANNA GO?

Educational turtle walks are held bi-weekly by Emerald Coast Turtle Watch on Mondays and Thursdays starting at 8 p.m.

There is a 20-person limit to the walks so call in advance to reserve a spot.

Walk will begin at the Okaloosa Island Fire Department located at 104 Santa Rosa Blvd, on OkaloosaIsland.

For more information email: ECTurtleWatch@gmail.com or call 865-0868