Volunteer Spotlight: Donna Simons
Editor’s Note: This article also appears in the STPS Winter 2024 Turtle Talk Newsletter (see page 13).
Donna’s love for sea turtles began when she and her husband Roger lived in Port St. Joe in Florida’s panhandle and volunteered to do nest surveys on St. Joseph Peninsula. Although the Big Bend area of Florida is relatively underpopulated, they normally only counted about 60 nests in a good nesting season. So, in 2015, when their friends heard they were moving to Palm Bay, they said “You’re moving to sea turtle mecca!” And they were right. The first time Donna and Roger went to a Brevard beach during nesting season, it was covered with marked sea turtle nests as far as they could see. They were in heaven.
After moving to Palm Bay, Donna started volunteering at Brevard Zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center working with fibropapillomatosis (FP) patients. She remembers one STPS rescue, a sub-adult green named Miss Archie who not only had FP, but was born with a missing flipper. Donna calls her a “three-time offender” because Miss Archie had to be rescued three different times at which point FWC determined that she had become habituated to people and could not be released back into the wild. Luckily, Miss Archie found a permanent home at the Aquarium at the Boardwalk in Branson, Missouri, which coincidentally, is not far from where Donna and Roger lived for 36 years and where their children live. To this day, Donna and several other hospital volunteers keep in touch with Miss Archie’s keeper at the aquarium to get the latest news on their former patient.
While working at the healing center, Donna quickly became friends with several STPS members including former Board member Vickie Openshaw. Vickie recommended that Donna and Roger get involved in STPS. So, they both joined and started volunteering. They’ve participated in Events, Education activities, the Turtle Krawl 5K (see photo below), Stranding & Salvage, STERP, and Transport. In 2016, Donna started working part-time at the Turtle House in Indialantic and she really enjoys sharing her enthusiasm for sea turtles and educating people about them. Also, being on the STPS Transport permit allows her to handle rescued sea turtles that are brought to the Turtle House. During peak hatching season, they get one or two hatchlings a day.
Donna’s most memorable sea turtle encounter started with a late-night phone call at 1:30 am from UCF’s MTRG Dean Bagley. On June 18, 2018, Dean had found a nesting female leatherback to tag and was calling to ask Donna to join her. Despite the fact that Donna had broken two toes a couple days before, she said “Yes!” and 20 minutes later was making her way across Floridana Beach with the help of her cane. She got to watch Dean and her team take tissue samples and place tags on the turtle’s hind flippers. She also got close enough to see how the leatherback laid spacer eggs (the size of a large marble) in between the fertilized eggs. This behavior is unique to leatherbacks and helps to regulate the temperature of the eggs. After the leatherback returned to the ocean, Dean told her to look around the beach. To her amazement, they were surrounded by nesting sea turtles. It was an extraordinary experience Donna will never forget.