By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
They are known in certain circles as “the turtle whisperers.” The Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol volunteers reinforced that title this year when they found the very first nest of the season on April 30, one day before the official start on May 1. The first nest isn’t typically expected until Mother’s Day.
It was a Loggerhead turtle, which accounts for 95 percent of the nests found in St. Johns County, said Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol permit holder Lucas Meers. On average 80 – 90 nests will be found per season, and Florida has the largest rookery of Loggerheads in the world. Loggerheads lay an average of 115 eggs per “clutch,” up to six or seven times in one season, nesting every one to three years.
“For a residential beach, we have a relatively high density of nests compared to our surrounding beaches, and we want to make sure the turtles can continue to nest here safely,” said Meers.
Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol volunteer Tiffany Young joked that there is a friendly competition amongst the different turtle patrols in the area over “something we have absolutely no control over.”
“We envy their team,” said Ron Salateo, a Ponte Vedra Beach Turtle Patrol volunteer.
Young and Meers met and chatted with Salateo one recent morning, an overlap of patrols that doesn’t happen very often.
Meers has volunteered for the past 10 years, and this is his first year as the permit holder, which involves training and taking a test through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC). Every morning before sunrise, Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol volunteers meet at Mickler’s Landing to inspect a 3.7 mile stretch of beach from the Sawgrass beach access south to the Sea Hammock condos. Mickler’s Landing is the largest beach access point in St. Johns County.
Two volunteers head in one direction and two take the other section, carrying bags that contain data sheets, instructions on marking nests, information on the different species of the endangered and threatened sea turtles, a rubber mallet for hammering in stakes, measuring tape and gloves. They are looking for turtle tracks that can be traced from the water back to the nest, ready to measure and document everything.
“We walk the most recent tideline,” said Meers, who holds a marine biology degree from Jacksonville University. “We collect data for the FWC and then implement a conservation and action plan for turtle nesting. We have no contact with the actual turtles.”
Meers said the only time that he and his team would relocate a nest would be if the eggs are exposed or it is actively being washed away by the water or if there is a beach construction project happening during nesting season.
Patrol volunteers also collect trash as they walk. Balloons and balloon strings are of particular concern because turtles will ingest the balloons (mistaking them for jellyfish) and the strings get twisted into nests.
Nicole Crosby, who formed Never Endanger Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) in 2019, is currently collecting signatures for a St. Johns County petition to end intentional helium balloon releases. Currently, the state allows 10 balloons to be released at once; however, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach and Fernandina Beach have already adopted a ban on outdoor helium balloon releases. Crosby would like to see St. Johns County follow suit.
Trash is just one of many threats to the sea turtles. Outdoor lights and flashlights could cause the female turtle to release eggs in the water if she gets scared, Meers said. All beachfront properties are required to eliminate visible interior and exterior lights by 9 p.m.
In addition, St. Johns County suggested refraining from using fireworks and open fires, removing ruts and sand castles, avoiding entering sand dunes and conservation zones and never approaching sea turtles emerging from, or returning to the sea.
Meers said that community support and awareness is so important and appreciated.
“We like to use this as an umbrella species for people to not only love the sea turtles, but to protect the beach and dune ecosystem,” he said.
Once the nests are marked, the eggs incubate for approximately 55 days depending on the weather conditions. Once the hatchlings emerge from the nest overnight, the morning turtle patrol will document it. Three days later, an evaluation is conducted, so that the hatchlings have enough time to emerge as naturally as possible.
“On the evening of the third day, we will dig up the eggshells to determine how productive the nest was, which includes determining how many hatchlings emerged from the nest and how many didn’t, whole eggs and dead hatchlings,” said Meers. “This will tell us how successful the nest was.”
The hatch success rate is at 80 – 95 percent.
“Some of the most memorable moments are the rare opportunities I have to see the hatchlings emerge. It’s an incredible sight to see, and I’ve only seen it three times in the 11 years that I have been doing this,” said Meers.
For more information, visit the Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MicklersLandingTurtlePatrol. To learn more about N.E.S.T., visit www.neverendangerseaturtles.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit https://tinyurl.com/4ycrc9s5 to sign the petition to ban outdoor helium balloon releases.
Photo courtesy Photo by Walter Oberes
Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol documenting a nest.