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Beach resort spends $5 million protecting sea turtles

Mark Parker

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TradeWinds Island Resorts officials are increasing efforts to ensure sea turtle hatchlings can safely reach the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of Sea Turtle Trackers.

The largest waterfront resort on St. Pete Beach is increasing its investment in guest accommodations for a yearly visitor – the loggerhead sea turtle.

TradeWinds Island Resorts is expanding efforts to protect sea turtles that nest on its 40 beachfront acres. The expansive facility at 5500 Gulf Blvd. includes two sister facilities with 897 rooms and villas, a “floating ocean water park,” a 33,500-gallon aquarium, 15 restaurants and bars, nine pools and 642 cabanas.

The resort features an added layer of activity from late spring through summer. That is when loggerhead turtles, protected under the Endangered Species Act, come ashore to create nests and lay eggs. Hatchlings emerge 50 to 60 days later.

Joe Smith, founder and CEO of 1754 Properties, TradeWinds’ parent company, said environmental sustainability is “in our DNA.” He also noted the yellow tape surrounding nests attracts curious tourists.

“We’re really happy we can open up this new educational exhibit for our customers to tell them more about how sea turtles work,” Smith told the Catalyst. “We want to teach visitors that you have to leave it (nests) alone; this is what’s happening, and it’s very critical for the environment.”

Resort officials recently installed mock sea turtle nests with signage explaining pertinent program information. Photo provided.

An expanded partnership with Sea Turtle Trackers, a local nonprofit, supports the enhanced sustainability efforts. Signage surrounding a recently installed mock nest explains the program for customers and beachgoers.

Sea Turtle Trackers will host weekly discussions for hotel guests. The educational programming includes activities designed to engage visitors of all ages.

TradeWinds officials are also replacing wooden lounge chairs with lightweight, plastic versions. That will allow employees to stack the obstacles away from sea turtles during hatching season.

“We’re finding that guests – more and more – are selecting restaurants, hotels and other services based upon how environmentally friendly they are,” Smith said. “For us, it’s really important we do what our guests expect us to do. And our guests expect us to be good partners with the environment.”

The world’s oceans were once home to several million loggerheads, whose numbers dwindled but have since rebounded due to conservancy efforts. Hatchlings emerge at night and rely on the moon to find the sea, a perilous journey. Artificial light steers new sea turtles off course.

Window placards will instruct guests to close their blinds overnight during hatching season. While TradeWinds implemented “turtle-compliant” lighting around the expansive property years ago, they now plan to install glare-reducing window tint throughout the resort.

Smith expects the project and replacing the resort’s chairs to cost around $5 million. “It’s a very, very significant and committed investment from us,” he said.

“We don’t see guests necessarily booking just to see hatchlings,” Smith added. “But we do see it is important for the local residents and community, as well as us.”

He noted that TradeWinds does not serve drinks with straws. The resort also traded its shampoo and soap bottles for dispensers.

TradeWinds will also provide reusable cups rather than in-room water bottles. The resort’s scale increases the efficacy of those efforts.

“Saving 500,000 plastic water bottles a year is phenomenal,” he said. “Not serving straws on all the drinks – hundreds of thousands of drinks – it really has a big impact on the environment.”

Joe Widlansky, vice president of operations for Sea Turtle Trackers, echoed that sentiment. He said eliminating single-use plastics is the most important thing anyone can do to protect adult loggerheads.

Widlansky explained that turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, a routine part of their diet. He urges visitors to dispose of garbage in bins near the resort rather than on the beach, as wind and seagulls can carry trash to the sea.

“There’s not a turtle out there that doesn’t have microplastics in it,” Widlansky added.

A locally rescued loggerhead sea turtle swims past the author at the Florida Aquarium. Photo: Sabrina Feher.

He provided weekly presentations at TradeWinds from 2013 until the pandemic’s onset in 2020. Widlansky said the resort’s new ownership has a renewed commitment to environmental stewardship.

“I wish everybody did,” he said. “They’re doing so much with lights-out, education and stuff like that, it should really help the turtles – a lot.”

Widlansky said the local population is “good,” not “great.” He expressed hope that the upward trend would continue.

Widlansky noted that the enhanced partnership is mutually beneficial. The Tradewinds lobby will prominently display a donation box for the nonprofit, and signage throughout the resort will feature QR codes.

Smith believes the resort’s efforts can serve as a national model. He also stressed that preserving marine habitats requires a sense of urgency.

“It’s important that we and other hotels take actions to do the right thing … because our guests do enjoy it,” Smith added. “They want to be able to see loggerhead turtles … and have fish actually there. And without that, I do think our business would be hurting.”

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    March 15, 2024at8:22 am

    First, Mark Parker, you are doing a great job!
    Hopefully, the Trade Winds model will be replicated and subsidized
    for the smaller hotels lacking the budget for modifications. It is a real thrill to see the hatchlings make theur was to the water!

  2. Avatar

    Steve D

    March 14, 2024at10:03 pm

    So, hopefully the Protect St Pete Beach people will read this article and realize that maybe… just maybe… developers who want to improve their properties aren’t evil after all.

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