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Turtle power : Disney conservation team, egg-detecting beagle are heroes to the half shells

VERO BEACH — About 90 minutes southeast of Walt Disney World, a team of Disney conservation experts are trying to be heroes to Florida’s turtle population. If you’re in the neighborhood during turtle season you can get in on the action.

Disney’s Vacation Club runs Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, a beachfront hotel located on prime nesting ground for loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles. Just after sunrise each morning, currently at 7 a.m. but times may vary, a Disney conservationist visits the beach at the resort to share information about the turtles.

Resort guests and the public are invited for the free program, which runs from March to October during turtle season. If you aren’t a resort guest, you may need find public parking and walk down the beach to the resort.

Occasionally making an appearance with the team is its newest member, Captain Ron, a 2-year-old pocket beagle who is trained to sniff out fresh turtle eggs in nests. The Disney Parks Blog recently wrote about the pooch, stressing that his nose can help them cut down the search for a nest from 30 minutes to 30 seconds.

On a recent visit, we met Michael, an Animal Program manager from Animal Kingdom Lodge, who doubles as a conservationist at Vero Beach during turtle season. The animal expert said the team does what it can to protect the turtles along a five-mile stretch of Vero Beach, including documenting movements, egg nests and hatchings, and teaching the public to do their part.

Nests are marked with stakes all along Vero Beach and conservationists keep tabs on when eggs were laid and when they should hatch to ensure they have the best chance of survival.

Michael had some hatchlings with him that needed extra care but were ready to be released. After showing the group gathered along the shore the two loggerheads and one leatherback turtle the team had been nursing, he placed them on the beach, where the smaller loggerheads beelined for waves. The leatherback was less excited for his first swim but within minutes, and to the delight of onlookers, they were gone.

The conversationist stressed that it is illegal to touch the turtles along Florida’s beaches because most species have been classified as threatened or endangered by Federal wildlife officials. Disney’s team is licensed for such work.

While beachgoers shouldn’t touch the turtles, there are other tips Michael offered for helping the turtle population:

* Knockdown sandcastles before you leave the beach and take everything you brought with you when you go. Turtles will return to the water without laying their eggs if they reach an obstacle.

* Fill in any holes you’ve created on the beach. Turtles, especially hatchlings, can fall in and get stuck.

* Turtles nest at night. If you do visit the beach after sunset, avoid shining bright lights, like flashlights. Turtles don’t like them and will head back to the water rather than nesting.

* Hatchlings also frequently head for the water after dark, so avoid the beach at night during turtle season so you don’t disturb them, or worse, step on one.

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