Turtles for the future: An interview with David Godfrey

David Godfrey

Turtles are essential beings, not just for marine ecosystems, but also for so many local communities. Disturbing significantly nature’s rhythm affects the entire food chain, and the effects of this don’t just stay in the oceans. David Godfrey has dedicated three decades of his life to sea turtle conservation, understanding their crucial role in keeping a balance in marine ecosystems. This exclusive interview brings to light David’s journey in the sea turtle world, insights into their importance, and everyday challenges he and his organization face in the fight to protect this amazing animal.

Thank you David for agreeing to do this interview and for your time. Tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your story?

David: My pleasure! I grew up in Florida doing a lot of surfing and developed a strong connection to the ocean and coasts. In college, I knew I wanted to work in a field in which I could improve the protection of wildlife and wild places. I was lucky to get a starting job with the Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) here in Florida, which allowed me to learn how to work toward conservation goals. I was using the media to get out the message, organizing networks of individuals and organizations to advocate for change and work within the political and legal system to bring about change. After about 5 years with FDE, I had an opportunity to work on sea turtle issues here at the Sea Turtle Conservancy. I started my job, focused on Florida turtle issues, in 1993. By 1997, I had become the Executive Director of the organization, and I knew it would be my lifelong career. Now 27 years after becoming the ED, it is still my life’s passion to lead this organization and improve the survival outlook for sea turtles.

Could you dive a bit further into the biggest challenge/s you face when protecting sea turtles?

David: There are many challenges, but the one that comes to mind immediately is the difficulty we have in convincing some people that they should care at all about anything other than themselves. Saving sea turtles, or any type of wildlife, takes just a little bit of sacrifice from people. It seems lately that it’s getting harder and harder to get people to sacrifice any comfort or convenience in the name of saving a species other than themselves. There are still good and caring people in the world, but those who understand and feel empathy on behalf of sea turtles are getting harder to find.

Is there a right or wrong way to protect sea turtles?

David: That’s a tough question because what may be right in one part of the world is exactly the wrong approach in another part – and vice versa. An example is the tactic of moving sea turtles’ eggs into a safe hatchery to protect them. In places where there is little or no enforcement of turtle protection laws (or where no such laws exist), hatcheries are an essential tactic for conservation. However, in a place like the United States, where the penalties for harming sea turtles are severe, there is less need to directly protect nests on the beach. People generally would never disturb a turtle nest. However, things like artificial lighting or disturbance of nesting turtles by tourists simply walking the beach at night can have a negative impact – addressing these threats is the best conservation tactic. Sea turtle conservation has been around for 65 years since the STC was formed in 1959. A lot has been tried and tested, and there are now generally accepted best practices for sea turtle conservation. Anyone wanting to get into the turtle protection arena should absolutely consult any of the numerous guidebooks on turtle conservation that are available.

Tell us about the people from the ground. What is the role of each stakeholder?   

David: If a person lives at the beach, especially if their home is on the beachfront, then people have a big responsibility to operate their household and behave in a way that does not disturb sea turtles. One key action people can take is to manage their lights to be sea turtle-friendly. Amazing advances in the types of lights and fixtures available for exterior lighting have made the lights virtually invisible to sea turtles. This can save thousands of sea turtle hatchlings per year on just a single beach by preventing the disorientation of emerging hatchlings as they come out of their nests. 

Anyone visiting the beach also has the responsibility of avoiding impacts on turtles or their nests. This includes not walking on a nesting beach at night (during nesting season) and using lights handheld lights that disturb turtles. People also need to build their homes in a place where they will not need to have sea walls to protect them from the rising seas.

The list of responsibilities of stakeholders is so long and complex that it could take a book to fully cover this topic. But I will stop with the responsibility we all have to ensure that the people elected to the government have some commitment to the conservation of natural resources and wildlife like sea turtles. So many decisions are made by government agencies and elected officials every day that impact sea turtles and their habitats. If the people making these decisions don’t care, it will be virtually impossible to save sea turtles in the long run. We must hold our elected officials and senior government staff accountable for their actions regarding wildlife, and we must insist on the protection of animals like sea turtles. 

David Godfrey and the STC Staff working with marine turtles

What do you think is the role of businesses when it comes to sustainability?

David: All businesses need to play a role in sustainability, or else there won’t be a viable planet or marketplace in which to conduct business (or live) at some point. In addition, we all should want a world that is full of beauty and diversity. Without a serious commitment to sustainability, we will gradually lose the wild places and wildlife that add to the wonder of being alive in this world. As it relates to sea turtles specifically, these species are at the top of the food chain within each of the unique ecosystems in which they reside. Green turtles, for example, graze on seagrass beds in a way that adds to the productivity of this habitat. In short, sea turtles have aesthetic, cultural, and ecological benefits for mankind, so helping ensure a healthy future for these animals will add to the general well-being of mankind – which will help sustain a thriving population of consumers and clients for every form of business.

We’ve been collaborating for a while now and we know how close this topic is to you. What’s one tip you would give to anyone wanting to add their seed? 

David: I always try to tell people that everyone who cares about the planet and about wildlife must work together to save biological diversity. At the same time, each person can play an important role in conservation. The choices we make every day throughout our lives can have a tremendous impact. Making sure we help elect the right people to public office is a good start. The decisions made by the government and by elected officials have a huge impact on the planet. Additionally, we should all use less single-use plastic, eat food that has the least impact on the planet, use alternative energy sources when possible, and decrease our own use of fossil fuels. Get involved with and support local, national, and international NGOs that you feel are doing good work for the environment. They need your help and the work they do is critical.

How can people connect with you/Sea Turtle Conservancy?

David: STC’s website is www.conserveturtles.org, our Facebook, Instagram, and X accounts are all @conserveturtles. I can be reached directly at david@conserveturtles.org I invite anyone to learn about STC’s work and join us if you are able.

Thank you David for all this incredible information on the work you do every single day. We at Dots.eco feel inspired by the commitment you’ve built along your life for one single mission: Sea turtle conservation. The dedication Sea Turtle Conservancy has, makes us feel proud of this amazing collaboration. We hope to amplify your message and work together for bigger projects, for the turtles, and for the planet. 

Whether you’re an environmentalist, a business leader, or completely new in the turtle world, we can all take small steps to do good for the planet. It all starts one person at a time.

Want to learn more about turtles? Check out our blog about the leatherback turtle

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