This naturalist and “turtle lady” has been one of our environmental activists for decades
THEN: Joanne Ryan has seawater running through her veins. A beach person from an early age, Ryan grew up in the small town of Yaphank, New York on the east end of Long Island, spending as much time as she could on the sand. It wasn’t unusual to find her pitching a tent on the beach with cousins, putting up a volleyball net and spending a few days breathing in ocean air. Several years after moving to Florida in 1983, Ryan began taking beach walks for exercise and grew concerned seeing the amount of accumulated debris on the shoreline.
She soon started picking it up and putting it in her pocket, and later collecting it in buckets. Since then, the longtime Delray Beach resident has continued to gather garbage every time she’s on the beach. “There’s just so much more trash now,” she says. A lot of it, Ryan believes, comes from recreational and commercial boaters, and includes plastic detrimental to marine life.
“There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t go out and find plastic forks and spoons on the beach,” she says.
NOW: It was while boating with her husband, Steven, a dozen or so years ago that Ryan came across two injured sea turtles in the Intracoastal Waterway just a few months apart. Although attempts to save them came up short, the efforts helped Ryan learn about Highland Beach’s volunteer sea turtle monitoring program.
Soon she was patrolling the beach, often starting before dawn, looking for evidence of turtle nesting. Now, in her 11th year with the program, Ryan has recently been named permit holder and principal officer and now oversees day to day operations. She still continues to volunteer three days a week from March 1 to Oct. 31, marking nests and collecting data for state wildlife officials about everything from active and false nests to the number of hatched or unhatched eggs in each nest. A Florida master naturalist, Ryan often explains to visitors—especially younger ones—the importance of preserving the beach ecosystem.
Not surprisingly, she still leaves the beach every time with pockets or buckets full of trash she’s collected.