MARCO ISLAND, Fla. - In the pre-dawn darkness of slumbering Marco Island, before the construction workers pile into 7-Eleven for morning jolts of caffeine and nicotine, before the solitary joggers and beach strollers stretch their muscles, Mary Nelson goes to work.
Clad in shorts, sandals and sleeveless T-shirt, she looks the part of an early-rising tourist, or perhaps one of those determined shell collectors. Look a little closer, though, and an unmistakable theme emerges.
Gracing her wrist is a turtle bracelet, dangling from her neck a turtle pendant. "Turn Out the Lights," her T-shirt's slogan implores, as hatchlings crawl to the water.
Her driver's license says Mary Kelly Nelson, 58. But on Marco's six miles of crescent beaches, everyone else calls her The Turtle Lady.
This is Nelson's seventh summer keeping track of sea turtle nests as a part-time employee of Collier County's Natural Resources Department, protecting their eggs and making sure new hatchlings return to the sea.
Every morning from May through October, seven days a week, she boards a Kawasaki Bayou all-terrain vehicle and combs the sand, looking for flipper tracks leading to new nests while making sure previously identified nests remain undisturbed.
Most summer and fall nights, she repeats the drill, leaving her beachfront condo to check for hatchlings, often helping to guide the tiny, endangered creatures to safety. She also makes sure the island's hotels and abundant high-rises comply with laws to limit bright lights, which confuse and disorient the young loggerheads.
A native of Elkhart, Ind., Nelson moved to Marco with her husband, Rich, in 1991 from their home in Brookline, Mass., where Rich was a pharmaceutical executive. High-school sweethearts in Elkhart, the two continued on to Indiana University in Bloomington, marrying 34 years ago.
After seeing a nest on the beach near their condo, she quickly became enthralled with sea turtles. Then came library visits to learn more, followed by volunteer work for the county and The Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
"I got hooked," she said.
Always an animal lover, Nelson found herself identifying with the baby turtles' I-think-I-can moxie, fascinated as hundreds of half-ounce hatchlings emerged from eggs the size and shape of ping-pong balls 60 to 90 days after their mothers deposited them in the sand. Should they survive, those same youngsters will return to Marco 20 years from now to repeat the life cycle.
"It's just the determination of those little hatchlings, crawling back to the water," she said.
In her spare time on weekends, she ventures out on a friend's boat to Kice Island, where she sets up metal screens over turtle nests to deter raccoons from snatching a quick meal. She frequently lectures to school, civic and community groups, too.
"She's very, very dedicated," said Maura Kraus, a senior environmental specialist for Collier County and Nelson's boss. "She's out there night and day. She's the momma turtle, the babies don't have anyone else ... She would be hard, if not impossible, to replace." The job has its pitfalls. Last summer, Nelson was horrified to discover dozens of bloody turtle embryos, forcibly detached from their eggs by a wooden stake used to rope off nests. A sign alerting beach users that disturbing nests is a federal crime was ripped in pieces and thrown atop the vandalized nest.
Also last year, vandals ripped out the ignition and spray-painted Nelson's ATV. Then there's the day-to-day battle with unknowing tourists who leave trash or lawn furniture on the beach, or the kids who dig large holes in the sand, further endangering newborn turtles.
Driving the ATV through a parking lot, Nelson jokingly points out her "office" - a closet-size storage shed. A converted cooler beneath the ATV's handlebars carries some tools of the trade: hammer, stapler and yellow warning signs. Stakes and buckets are tied on back, with a hand-held global positioning system device -a gift from her husband, a member of Marco Island's Planning Board - for good measure.
"Some people get diamonds for their birthday. I get a GPS," she laughs.