Environment

South Florida girl and turtle champion to appear in HBO series

Teakahla Whitecloud reaches for a baby turtle during one of her regular beach patrols looking for disoriented turtles. Whitecloud, of Fort Lauderdale, is one of the kids from across the country featured in a new documentary by HBO and the American Museum of Natural History looking at what can be done to protect the planet.
Teakahla Whitecloud reaches for a baby turtle during one of her regular beach patrols looking for disoriented turtles. Whitecloud, of Fort Lauderdale, is one of the kids from across the country featured in a new documentary by HBO and the American Museum of Natural History looking at what can be done to protect the planet.

Sea turtles off South Florida may have no bigger champion than little Teakahla Whitecloud.

At 3, she started monitoring turtle nests off Fort Lauderdale Beach with her parents. Now 12, she is a founding director and secretary in charge of answering phones at Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, a Fort Lauderdale rescue and release program scheduled to unveil new beachfront headquarters Saturday. She gives talks, leads beach patrols and keeps a team of about 30 junior rangers in line.

On Monday, she’ll step onto the national stage in an HBO documentary series, Saving My Tomorrow, along with Tina Fey, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pharrell Williams and others who examine the perils facing the planet through the eyes of its children.

If that sounds like an exhausting schedule, Whitecloud has some other interests, too, like cooking — soups are her specialty — and fashion.

“My designs are eco-friendly,” she said. “I do a little bit of art as well.”

Whitecloud was noticed by award-winning documentary maker Amy Schatz — whose father Norman Schatz teaches neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Miami — when she was named one of five finalists for Oceana’s 2012 Junior Ocean Heroes.

“A person from HBO just called one day, and bam,” Whitecloud said. “I was really surprised.”

Several emails later, Whitecloud was standing in front of a camera crew near the beach — not on the beach because Whitecloud worried camera lights would disorient turtles in the area — and Sunrise Boulevard, where the rescue group’s headquarters are based in Sunrise Village at 3104 NE Ninth St.

Since they started the rescue operation in 2007, Whitecloud, her family and volunteers have documented more than 82,000 disoriented hatchlings. They reported rescuing 50,000 and steering them back to sea in just the last two years.

All six species of sea turtles native to the U.S. coast are considered endangered or likely to disappear. Their numbers have plummeted by about 95 percent, largely because of destruction to nesting habitat, but also from pollution and overfishing.

The series begins with a two-hour family special airing Monday on HBO. On Sunday, Whitecloud and her parents will attend a flashy premiere at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Schatz also will attend to answer questions along with some of the kids featured in the film.

For the series, Schatz and HBO teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History to look at the plight of the turtles as well as other threats to the environment. Along with Fey and Williams, others who will appear on the four-part series beginning April 22 on Earth Day include Susan Sarandon, Alan Cumming and Jeffrey Wright. In addition to Williams’ performance, Ziggy Marley, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, They Might Be Giants and Jason Mraz will perform.

The series includes comments from kids about the dangers threatening the environment, as well as about animation and music. Kids will also explore issues with the help of the museum’s scientists.

“We always prided ourselves on letting the story tell itself and not embellishing the animal rights issue, so we were honored that our work was able to capture their attention,” said Richard Whitecloud, an environmental consultant who said he grew up canoeing the Kissimmee River and Everglades, often solo for days at a time, before his family moved to a sailing yacht.

Empowering kids with an environmental ethos is critical, he said.

“It’s really a persuasive social tool, and the kids are persuasive,” he said. “It’s their world. We’re just borrowing it from them.”

A two-part special on Saving My Tomorrow premieres on HBO Monday at 7 p.m. and will continue to aire on the network, as well as HBO2, at select times through Dec. 30. The 4-part series begins on Earth Day, April 22.

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