Sea turtle season is here

By Martie Thompson
editor@floridanewsline.com

Following a challenging 2017 — that saw the second hurricane in 11 months affect northeast Florida — for sea turtle nests along northern St. Johns County beaches, the 2018 season returns on May 1. This is typically the earliest date that female sea turtles return to shore to lay their eggs. The season continues until Oct. 31.

“Last year was the second year in a row that we had a big storm,” said Wes Moore, a volunteer with Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol, which patrols three and a half miles of beach from the Duval County line to Sawgrass Beach Club. “We had approximately 20 percent of the nests wiped away during the hurricane, which is about the same percentage the entire state experienced.”

Despite this, Moore said that he had some good news to share: the green sea turtle has been upgraded from endangered to threatened. Loggerheads remain threatened and leatherbacks are still endangered and unfortunately seem to be declining, based on a lower number of nests.

Loggerhead nests in 2017 were comparable to 2016, but last year was higher for green turtles. Moore said that normally the area he patrols has one to two leatherback nests, but there were none in 2017.

According to Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol volunteer coordinator Nancy Condron, last year her group counted 90 nests in the four mile stretch of beach they monitor from Sawgrass south to the Old Ponte Vedra condominiums. Fourteen nests were lost to Hurricane Irma.

Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol volunteers begin walking their stretch of beach each morning beginning April 15, while the Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol begins its inspections a bit later, on May 1. This group uses an ATV to cover the beach using fewer volunteers.

“We normally don’t see nests until about May 15, so that’s why we begin patrols on May 1,” Moore said. “Sometimes leatherbacks lay eggs as early as April 15, before we begin our patrols, but their tracks look like a monster truck coming ashore, so we always get calls about it from beachgoers.”

The leatherback turtle, Moore said, is by far the largest sea turtle and can be up to eight feet long and a thousand pounds.

Moore said each morning, one volunteer, on a rotating basis, goes on the beach on the group’s ATV around sunrise to check for nests laid the previous night. Moore was happy to report that the group recently purchased a new John Deere Gator for their patrols, thanks to generous adopt-a-nest donations.

For both groups, volunteers are responsible for marking any new nests by putting up stakes around them with tape and recording the GPS location. Approximately two months later, volunteers return to look for signs of a nest hatching. Three days after this, at dusk, they return to perform a Nest Hatchling Success Survey, where whole (unfertilized) eggs are counted as well as partial eggs and any dead hatchlings.

Moore has some advice for beachgoers who are interested in helping to preserve sea turtles: pick up tents and chairs and litter from the beach as well as fill in any holes in the sand, which may trap mother turtles on their way to lay their eggs or prevent hatchlings from returning to the sea.

“Basically, we hope people enjoy the beach during the day, but leave it as they found it for the night time,” Moore said.

 

Visit www.facebook.com/PonteVedraSeaTurtlePatrol/ to learn more about Ponte Vedra Turtle Patrol or www.facebook.com/groups/MicklersTurtlePatrol/

 

Photo courtesy Becky Vodrey

Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol volunteer Wes Moore cleans out Nest 62.

 

Did you know these facts about sea turtles?

  • The loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles nest on the beaches in Northeast Florida
  • Sea turtles spend their whole life in the ocean, except when females come ashore to lay eggs
  • Sea turtles cannot retract their head into their shells like other turtles and tortoises can for safety
  • Sea turtles are ectothermic or “cold-blooded” reptiles that breathe air
  • Fibropapillomatosis or FP is a mysterious disease that affects all species of sea turtles but especially Green turtles
  • Sea turtles are impacted by lights on the beach; turn off lights visible on nesting beaches or use special fixtures to shield the light from the beach

Source: Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, www.whitney.ufl.edu/sea-turtle-hospital/sea-turtle-links–facts/