By S'iva Goodman
STUART - A local environmental activist was honored by the county on Tuesday, June 20, when the beach in front of Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island was dedicated to and named in his honor.
One of Martin County's native sons, Florida sea turtle enthusiast, Ross Witham, also known as the "turtle man," died in 2004, but Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith made sure his legacy lives on.
"Ross was an individual that you don't often meet in life," said Commissioner Smith. "You didn't have to be born in Martin County to be repected by him. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known and I was lucky to have spent 10 years knowing him."
The beach at the House of Refuge is now known as Ross Witham Beach and, for very good reasons.
Mr. Witham's interest in sea turtles was sparked when he found a hatchling tangled in seaweed on a walk along the beach in 1957. He untangled the hatchling and it eventually died, but it captured Mr. Witham's heart and so began his fight to save the sea turtle from disappearing from United States waters.
Ross Witham worked on sea turtle conservation for more than 30 years as the Marine Turtle Coordinator for the Florida Department of Natural Resources from 1963 to 1987, and through turtle recovery and conservation projects that he initiated on his own. He also spent decades tirelessly educated the public about the importance and beauty of the threatened species.
"If it had not been for Ross, people may never have had the opportunity to enjoy the sea turtles that visit our coasts," Mr. Smith said.
He said Mr. Witham was inducted into the Environmental Studies Council Hall of Fame last year. At the induction ceremony, Mr. Witham's daughter approached Mr. Smith about dedicating a beach to her father.
"Rep. Gayle Harrell and I thought it was a great idea and began searching for an area of beach with no name," he said. "It was fate that the very beach Ross used to raise and release sea turtle hatchlings into the sea was unnamed.
"It was the perfect tribute to pay to Ross, who spent more than 30 years devoted to saving the sea turtles," Mr. Smith added.
The sign provided by the county reads, "Ross Witham Beach: The Turtle Man's Beach. This is where it all started."
Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge was built in 1876 along with 10 other houses of refuge on the Florida coast and is the only one standing.
"The turtle on the sign is significant as well because it is the logo of the Environmental Studies Center's Turtle Tracks newsletter, which we have used for 10 years," said Commissioner Smith, who is also on the Environmental Studies Center board.
Mr. Witham's projects at the House of Refuge hatched and released more than 28,000 turtles. He testified before congressional committees regarding sea turtle threats and pioneered state laws restricting lighting on beaches because it interferes with the sea turtle nesting process.
He also wrote a children's book promoting turtle preservation.
Mr. Witham was married to his wife Mabel for almost 60 years, and raised a family in Martin County, including three sons and one daughter.
A memorial has also been established at the Environmental Studies Center in Jensen beach commemorating his dedication to the sea turtle.
Ross Witham Beach is located in front of Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, 301 S.E. Mac Arthur Blvd, Stuart. Two miles north of the St. Lucie Inlet, on Hutchinson Island.