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UNF graduate playing key role in Disney-led sea turtle research

Rachel Smith, a University of North Florida graduate, is making waves due to her role in Disney Conservation’s recent findings regarding sea turtles in Florida.

The Tour de Turtles, an educational event put on by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, is currently ongoing for the 16th time. The mission of the project is to use satellite technology to track migration patterns of sea turtles each year, with different organizations sponsoring a turtle.

Disney’s turtles this year are named Madame Leota and Harriet, a nod to Disney’s new Haunted Mansion movie. Since last weekend, these two have traveled more than 700 miles. To put that into perspective, driving from Jacksonville to Miami is just 330 miles, not even half of that total distance. 

While the event does serve as a fun way to promote awareness of the dangers that sea turtles face, it’s the research that really makes a difference.

Smith stands in front of Disney's Vero Beach Resort.
Rachel Smith is one of many Ospreys bettering Florida’s waters. (Disney Conservation)

This is where Smith, Disney Conservation programs manager, comes into play. She is well versed in the field, having studied ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, later earning her masters of biology from UNF in 2012.

One way in which research was conducted included measurements of how many sea turtle nests are found at Disney’s Vero Beach resort. This season, 2,500 nests have been recorded, which is roughly double the resort sees on average. This is a great finding, as sea turtles are among the most endangered species in the ocean.

Smith expressed excitement in the process, which can take decades for the cycle to begin once again.

“These little hatchlings that we see hatch from their nests here are going really far out into the ocean,” Smith said. “Not until 25 or 30 years have passed, will the females of those turtles return to these beaches, [as] they use the earth’s magnetic fields to be able to navigate.”

Speaking of endangerment, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which was created to “prevent extinction and to recover species to the point where the law’s protections are not needed,” according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Sea turtle heads towards the sea
Onlookers at Disney’s Vero Beach resort get the unique opportunity of watching these creatures in action. (Disney Conservation)

Tracking sea turtles isn’t all that Disney’s animal care teams do. Along with cultivating a safe environment for the creatures, they have also helped nurse 300 of them back to health. 

It wouldn’t be the Tour de Turtles without some racing action, though. The event spices things up each year by seeing which turtle travels the furthest. Unlike a typical race, Harriet and Madame Leota took off in opposite directions.

Harriet currently leads, heading south near the Bahamas. Madame Leota has also made quite the trek, most recently being spotted off the coast of South Carolina. To check out the current standings and keep up with the race, visit Tour de Turtles’ site for more.

This is just one way in which Ospreys are making Florida’s waters a better place. Whether it be shark research conducted by a current student or an alumna counting sea turtle eggs down south, UNF is working to leave our waters better than we found them.


For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Riley Platt, Sports Editor
Riley Platt is a senior University of North Florida multimedia journalism student. A lifelong Jacksonville native, Riley has always had a burning passion for sports, specifically at the collegiate level. He grew up coming to UNF basketball games as early as his middle school days and now gets to cover the Ospreys, living out his childhood dreams. Riley's done a bit of everything with Spinnaker, whether it be writing over 200 articles, doing play-by-play commentary for UNF basketball and even serving as a sports anchor for Spinnaker TV’s weekly Nest News. Riley transitioned from Spinnaker to an internship at the end of the summer 2023 semester and is expected to graduate at the end of 2023. 

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