This is an exciting time of year on our beaches. It is sea turtle nesting season! During the overnight hours, female sea turtles make their way out of the ocean to lay and hide their eggs. Two months later, the baby sea turtles (hatchlings) emerge and crawl down to the water. Their little flippers are trying to get them to the water as quickly as possible to avoid the barrage of predators like birds, crabs, raccoons, and dogs that are waiting for a midnight snack. There are also obstacles like holes dug by beach goers or driftwood that the hatchlings must avoid. Experts say that at best only 1 in 1,000 will make it to adulthood. It’s our responsibility to take care of our beaches to give these turtles the best chance of surviving and thriving.
Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol has been around since the 1980’s and cares deeply about protecting the sea turtles that nest on our beaches. The group is lead by Nancy Condron, a veteran volunteer coordinator of eight years and now the permit holder for the group. Nancy, along with her team of about 47 volunteers, patrol four miles of beach starting at Sawgrass Beach Club and going south to Sea Hammock.
What do the volunteers do?
The primary responsibility of the volunteers is to provide data to FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation) on the nesting numbers and hatchling success of the sea turtle species that frequent our beaches.
Volunteers who are willing to give their time and knowledge are so important. They have been VERY busy this season! As of October 15th, there have been 143 nests total; 136 Loggerhead and 7 Green. Each nest can have more than 100 eggs!
The volunteers patrol the beach each morning at sunrise during the months of turtle season (May 1 through October 31) looking for new turtle nests and checking on those that have been found and marked. When new nests are located, they determine the species by looking at the tracks, mark them with stakes and tape, and assign the nest a number. Through very gentle and careful digging, the clutch of eggs is located. A single egg is removed and sent to the lab for DNA testing. This allows the nesting patterns of individual sea turtles to be documented and tracked. A mature female turtle may nest up to seven times per season, and by testing the egg, it can be determined where she is nesting and how often. Volunteers also look for false crawls along the beach as well. This is when turtles crawl on the beach but abandon nesting maybe because of outside factors like lights, animals, or people.
While patrolling the beaches, volunteers also look for signs of emergence from nests that have been marked. They know when an emergence has occurred because there will be a small crater in the middle of the nest as well as hatchling crawl tracks going down to the beach. If they see an emergence, they schedule a nest evaluation for three days later. They want to give any remaining hatchlings enough time to get out of the nest unassisted. At the evaluations, which happen at sunset, they dig up and tally the contents of the nest and provide the data to FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation). Volunteers count the number of hatched and unhatched eggs, and sometimes they find a few live hatchlings that did not make it out of the nest with their siblings.
By following Micker’s Landing Turtle Patrol on Facebook, you can see when the volunteers are doing evaluations and observe the process! I took Will and Wyatt to view an evaluation, and it was so interesting!
What can we all do to help the sea turtles?
There are three species of sea turtles that nest on our beaches, Loggerheads, Greens, and Leatherbacks. Leatherbacks are listed as endangered. Loggerheads and Greens are both threatened, which means they are at risk of becoming endangered.
Here’s what you can do to protect sea turtles:
- Be aware of items that pollute the beach and ocean. For example, sea turtles eat jellyfish, and plastic shopping bags LOOK like jellyfish, so turtles eat the plastic bags and end up dying because they cannot digest them.
- Maintain the natural beaches. This means filling in holes, knocking down sand castles, and picking up any debris that could be an obstacle for a hatchling.
- Be aware of leash requirements during sea turtle nesting season. Your dog could unknowingly dig up a nest or hurt hatchlings if they are not on a leash.
- Respect the nests. Don’t camp out and wait for them to emerge. The nesting and emerging process needs to be as natural as possible because any disruption could adversely affect the emergence process.
- Teach the next generation the importance of conservation. Bring your family to observe an evaluation, tell your children and friends about the nests and why they are marked off, or volunteer to help out in some way.
It’s important for us all to know what’s happening on our beaches and do our best to leave them as natural as possible so the turtles can thrive.