Robert Schonfeld of South Palm Beach may be retired, but from March 1 through Oct.31,
His neighbors call him the Turtle Man, because he walks the five-eighths-mile South Palm Beach shoreline, counting and marking off the sea turtle nests. He also counts false crawls — that’s when turtles come onto the beach, but don’t make a nest.
According to Schonfeld, there are only seven species of sea turtles in the world and three come to our beaches to lay their eggs: the loggerheads, leatherbacks and green turtles. They nest where the water is above 75 degrees and they can’t live in water less than 55 degrees.
“Sea turtles … [have] survived 200 million years. They don’t have many predators and, although they haven’t changed much, they’ve adapted pretty well,” he said.
The first ashore during the turtle season are the leatherbacks in March. They are followed by the loggerheads in April and, at the end of June, the greens make their way here.
This year, by mid-July, Schonfeld had already counted 130 loggerhead nests, beating last year’s count of 120, and, at that point, the loggerheads still had two more weeks until they stop laying in the end of July. He’s counted two leatherback nests this year and five green nests; these counts are in line with previous yearly counts. The leatherbacks finish laying by the end of May and the greens will finish around the end of August.
“I just enjoy monitoring the turtles. It keeps me healthy to walk everyday and it’s a fascinating experience to see them. It’s fascinating to help the little hatchlings and it’s wonderful to teach others about them.
“It’s thrilling to learn about nature,” he said. “I get goose bumps, and it doesn’t get old.”
— Christine Davis
10 Questions for Robert Schonfeld
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I was born in New York City, and my family moved to Baltimore when I was 11 or 12, where we stayed until I was 17, when we went to Newport News, Va. I went off to
college, University of Richmond, in Virginia, where I received a bachelor of
art degree, and then I went to the University of Maryland, where I earned a
master’s degree and PhD equivalent in American history.
I was offered a job at the University of Buffalo as an instructor, and then I lived in the Washington, D.C., area. Before I knew it, I was running an agency.
So, education is very important.
After I retired, I taught all over. If I had to do my life over, I’d be a teacher. I really enjoy teaching and working with the children.
Q. How/when did you get interested in sea turtles?
A. I have always had a deep interest in everything and anything and I love all animals. I got interested in sea turtles when I went to a symposium on sea
turtles in 1993, when I moved to South Palm Beach.
I live on the beach and after the seminar, I was helping the lady who had the state permit for marine turtle monitoring. When her permit was not renewed, I
took the permit.
I’ve had lots of people offer to help me, but it’s hard because you have to count the nests and false crawls every day and you have to get up before dawn. I’ve
skipped two days in 18 years; one day I was sick and on the other day there was
Q. What have been your other careers (or hobbies), what were the highlights?
A. Before I was retired, I managed health- and medical-related organizations. I was the branch chief for the National Cancer Institute and I was the executive
officer of the National Institute of Mental Health. At Tulane Medical School, I
was the director of planning.
Now, I am a docent at the Palm Beach Zoo and a master gardener.
I also do all the landscaping for my condo, as a volunteer. I go out with a clipper every morning. I don’t mow the grass, but I keep track if we need more
mulch, or need to buy new plants. It’s fun. It’s not a job. It doesn’t cost the
I love to go to the zoo and I’ve loved my other careers. I was a substitute teacher after I retired for two years in Montgomery County, Md. I worked every
day and I loved it.
I love sports, too. I was the league racquetball champion of the C League at the Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach when I was 67.
Q. What advice do you have for coastal residents concerned about sea turtles?
A. Be aware of our wonderful area and how sea turtles use our beach. Understand that nobody should come up here and pull up the signs or ride motorcycles on
the beach. Don’t put lights on, because that will distract the mothers from
laying their eggs. Palm Beach County is the second most important beach in the
world for loggerhead turtle nesting.
Q. Tell us about the turtle-monitoring program in South Palm Beach.
A. The state has a big program and a whole division to protect sea turtles. It’s part of the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1972, where different
states are required to keep records.
I’ve been monitoring sea turtles since 1993 and still look forward to walking each day at dawn to find new nests. It’s still a thrill!
There’s another hard-working man, Rick Scheer, who helps me two days a week, and my wife helps me, too.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in South Palm Beach?
A. I came here in 1973 from the Washington, D.C., area. Carol and I had recently married and we were looking for a place to live and we liked it here, saw this
wonderful condo apartment for sale directly on the beach and I loved it.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in South Palm Beach?
A.The view of the ocean and beach. It changes everyday and never gets tiresome.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A.All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Jonas Salk, M.D., of the Salk Institute; John Walsh, M.D., Tulane Medical School; and my wife, Carol Schonfeld. She’s very intelligent and inquisitive and a very wonderful person.
I worked in the office next to Jonas Salk and Walsh was the dean at Tulane. Salk was very inquisitive about research and getting to the bottom of things. Walsh was a fascinating
individual, who wanted to stop people’s suffering.
Carol and I have done a lot of traveling and she’s also a master gardener. We share a lot of similar interests. She never stops surprising me.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. “Never stop learning.” — Jonas Salk