|Zander Strodes image from Volvo for Life
Zander Srodes loves to talk turtle.
Just name the time and place and he's ready to spread the word on his beloved sea friends.
He's been this way since he was 11 and shows no sign of slowing. In fact, one might throw a pun or two in to say that, much like the rabbit and the hare, his campaign to save sea turtles has been progressing slow and steady and, at least in southwest Florida, he seems to be winning the race.
It all started in 2001 on Little Gasparilla, a stunning coastal community on the Gulf of Mexico where his family would often take weekend excursions to.
There he met a local artist and elementary school teacher named Linda Soderquist who took the grade-schooler under her fin and taught him all about the plight of sea turtles and their vital place in coastal ecology.
She monitored sea turtle nests on the island, and soon, Zander was doing it too.
He was so moved by what he learned from Linda and what he saw on those beaches that he decided to create his own educational program to help other kids (and adults) understand the importance of sea turtles, and how imperative it is to protect these gentle and graceful creatures.
Although only a 6th grader, he presented his idea to local community foundations, and soon thanks to donations and a start-up grant, he was busy preparing educational presentations.
Zander first went to Mote Marine in Sarasota near his home, a renowned research and educational institution and aquarium, specializing also in aquaculture, and marine life rescue and rehabilitation. There, Mote's Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program provided him with slides and additional information with which to create his presentations.
|Loggerhead Sea Turlte image courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
He dubbed his lectures "Turtle Talks" and started holding them, often wearing a black turtle costume he created himself, at elementary schools, libraries, and parks in several nearby counties in Florida, then eventually as far away as Costa Rica, Trinidad, and Panama.
His "Turtle Talks" typically put key focus on Loggerhead Sea Turtles, as Florida beaches host one third of the world's total population. Listed as threatened since the late '70s, it is vital that they thrive in Florida.
Likewise, his talks include ways in which kids can help save these noble giants (they can way up to 350 pounds and measure 3 ft long!), including not leaving litter on the beach so the turtles don't eat harmful substances or get ensnarled in trash.
He also teaches audiences not to have bright lights on at night at the beach, because newly-hatched baby turtles can confuse the lights for moonlight, and head in the wrong direction, away from the water. This disorientation accounts for thousands of hatchling deaths each year in Florida alone.
|Map of Loggerhead nesting sites courtesy of the Caribbean Conservation Corps
To expand his audience, the young conservationist-turned-author penned a twenty-page children's activity book, also called Turtle Talks, and gave it to schools, student clubs, and environmental groups, free of charge.
The book, illustrated by his own original turtle mentor, Linda Soderquist, has since been translated into French and Spanish as well, in both cases, by students like himself. Zander hand-delivered them to children in the countries he has traveled to for Turtle Talks, and today, students in eight countries have read his book.
Zander hopes that turtle conservation will continue to grow as education touches more and more people locally and internationally.
Thanks to the support of The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, Zander has been able to keep his educational programs afloat, and his book in publication, of which over 100,000 copies have already been distributed.
In fall of 2008 he also completed a book on the gopher tortoise, a species in peril of extinction due to coastal development and likewise, loss of habitat. The book is currently being distributed to students in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
|Zander Strodes in 2005. Image courtesy of Action for Nature
As a senior in high school, Zander has educated over 5,000 students on sea turtles and marine conservation.
The work of this turtle tutor has also received national attention, and in 2007, Zander was selected as a Volvo for Life finalist, an award which honors everyday heroes across America.
The award allows finalists to choose a charity to receive a large donation. As an intern in Mote Marine's Sea Turtle Conservation Program, the charity-selection was easy for Zander--and the donation is intended to help sea turtle research through tracking the noble animals in the wild.
Today, as he nears his high school graduation, Zander looks forward to attending the University of Hawaii and focusing on environmental studies, specifically wildlife conservation and environmental law.
He plans to continue his educational talks there, and slow and steady, forge ahead in his race to save the sea turtles.