Each and every morning our dedicated volunteer patrollers hit the beach half an hour before sunrise! Often working in pairs, these early-bird volunteers are on the lookout for evidence of overnight nesting activity. Their eyes focused on the sand, they carefully scan the beach hoping to spot the tell-tale signs of overnight sea turtle activity on the beach. Female loggerhead sea turtles weigh around 250 lbs., and their bodies are designed for life in the ocean, not on land. They lumber up the beach, moving their front and rear flippers in alternating strides, carrying their heavy bodies landward in search of the perfect place to deposit their precious cargo. This exhausting journey leaves behind its mark in the form of wide trails of disturbed sand behind the female turtle. Affectionately referred to as "turtle tracks," these trails are the sign our volunteers are searching for -- a sign that nesting season has begun!
Early morning is the best time to spot these tracks. This is because there is usually less human traffic on the beach at night, so the tracks are pristine and not walked over or otherwise disturbed by daytime activities. The low angle of the sun also creates shadows in the sand that make tracks more visible. Most of St. Pete Beach is cleaned daily by beach raking that remove the seaweed and shells washed ashore by the most recent high tide. The line formed by these materials is called the wrack line, and it provides food, shelter, and stability to the beach and its animal inhabitants. It is important that we find any tracks before the rakers smooth out the beach, removing evidence of sea turtle emergences. When our patrollers spot the turtle tracks, they follow the tracks up the beach to see if they lead to a nest or a false crawl. False crawls occur when the female turtle emerges from the water to nest, but encounters an obstruction (a man-made object left on the beach), is disturbed by noise, people, or light, or just doesn't approve of the conditions on the beach and returns to the water without laying eggs. She may try to nest again later that night, on a different part of the beach, or she could wait until the following night for another attempt. If she does not find suitable nesting habitat in which to leave her eggs, she will release her fertilized eggs in the water where they cannot develop.
Some of the biggest factors negatively affecting sea turtle nesting on public beaches are beach obstructions and artificial lighting. Recreational equipment like kayaks, tents, and lounge chairs left on the beach after sunset, and even mounds or holes dug in the sand, can act as a barrier to a female turtle emerging to nest, or to tiny hatchlings trying to make their way down to the water after emerging from their nest. When sea turtles encounter these items, we see the evidence the next morning on patrol, take photos, and report our findings to the authorities. Artificial lighting from hotels, condos, and businesses confuse sea turtles, who use subtle natural light from the moon and stars reflected on the horizon to orient themselves to the water. When sea turtles become disoriented, they may travel the wrong direction on the beach, towards danger, or become exhausted and unable to reach the safety of the water, falling victim to beach predators like ghost crabs and birds. These disorientations are also reported to authorities and we work with local law enforcement to correct possible sources of artificial light to make the beaches darker and safer for sea turtles.
It takes a skilled eye and lots of experience to be able to determine if a crawl resulted in a nest or a false crawl. If a nest is found during patrol, staff members (permitted volunteers) locate the egg cavity containing 80-100 soft, ping-pong ball sized eggs.The volunteers then place stakes around the nest and mark with caution tape to prevent it from being walked or driven over during its incubation period. They also triangulate the position of the clutch using stakes placed behind the nest, measure the distances between the clutch and the vegetation and the water line, and record all of this data in a field book. This data is reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who compile it into the statewide nesting beach databases. From this point until the nest hatches in about 50-60 days, it will be monitored daily to ensure it remains safe and undisturbed.
When a nest "goes live," about 45 days after it was laid, we assess the beach conditions surrounding the nest and determine if the nest will require protection from the threat of disorientation. If there is an artificial light source near the nest that cannot be remedied by the time the nest nears its expected hatch date, the nest is fitted with a small, black, mesh netting called a restraining cage. These cages prevent hatchlings, confused by white lights on the beach, from crawling to their deaths. Volunteers sit with these nests each night, ready to collect hatchlings and release them in a safer area when they hatch. Luckily, over the years St. Pete Beach has become much more turtle friendly, and environmentally-conscious business and home owners are good about turning off their lights during nesting season or replacing the bulbs with lower wavelength red or amber lights, which do not affect the turtles. Because of this, we use restraining cages very sparingly and most of our nests hatch naturally without any human interference!
Our monitoring does not end once the nest hatches. Several days after the hatchlings have emerged, volunteers excavate the contents of the egg chamber in order to count the number of hatched and unhatched eggs in the clutch. These inventories provide important data about nest success rates and the results are reported to FWC at the end of the season.
Our morning patrols are not just about the turtles... they are a great opportunity for us to be stewards of the beach environment. We collect garbage, knock down mounds and fill in holes in the sand, and educate locals and visitors alike about sea turtle nesting and the obstacles to their survival. Many people we encounter on the beach are fascinated by the work we do and are inspired to become environmental stewards too! If you're up early and walking on St. Pete Beach, stop us and say hello - we always enjoy meeting fellow turtle-lovers!