Every year Florida becomes home to more than 60,000 loggerhead sea turtle nests. In 2016, the number of sea turtle nests was unexpectedly high. And scientist at mote marine laboratory in Sarasota set out to learn why.
Sea turtle nesting
Every year, Florida becomes home to more than 60,000 loggerhead sea turtle nests.
In 2016, the number of sea turtle nests was unexpectedly high.
And scientists at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota set out to learn why.
Here's the story.
Early every morning during the summer, an army of volunteers scatter across 35 miles of beaches in southwest Florida to find and identify sea turtle nests.
This program is run by the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
We start at civil twilight, so very early but when we can still see.
And we're looking for the tracks of the mother turtle or babies if we have a hatch.
So the mother turtle comes up.
We can see her in-track and her out-track.
We walk the entire thing.
If we see signs of a nest, which will be kind of a flat area on the sand, a body pit area is what we call it, and a lot of scatter where she has swept sand with her front flippers over her eggs, those are our clues.
Jamie Schindewolf is a volunteer for Mote Marine.
And today, she's giving a guided tour for 50 locals interested in sea turtle nesting on Longboat Key.
She would've dug a hole with her back flippers somewhere in this area.
When a new nest is found, they first must verify that there are eggs.
We clear off the top sand that's scattered, basically, until we feel that the sand is hard.
And then, someone will very gently walk on the nest.
And when they sink down into the sand, they know that that's most likely where the chamber is.
And then, they'll investigate further.
And the eggs are pliable.
Go down to the top egg.
And then we'll stake it off so that people know a nest is there, so that we know.
We triangulate it.
And we GPS it as well.
And then we will X out the crawl so that tomorrow's patrollers don't get confused and think it's a new nest.
Data collection is at the heart of the research.
On today's outing, the team excavates a nest that hatched three days earlier.
No flash, very important, no flash.
We did find six babies down there.
And we got them out.
And we put some wet sand in the bottom of a bucket and covered them up with a towel.
So hopefully, they will rest today before we let them out tonight after sunset. We went down.
We counted the number of eggs that hatched, the number of eggs that were unhatched for whatever reason.
We found a number down there that were PIP, dead, which means they are half out of the shell.
But for whatever reason, they don't make it the rest of the way.
Biologist Kristen Mazzarella uses the data to determine if conservation efforts are working.
Six live, one dead, 73 hatched.
We have 250 volunteers this year.
We usually have a number of staff as well as interns that are here being trained, how to find nests and take care of nests and conserve the nests.
A female turtle returns to the area of her birth 30 years later to begin her first nesting season.
The mother turtle's gonna come up, generally, at night.
When she finds a good spot on the beach, she's starts digging.
She moves all the dry sand off, the top layer of sand off.
And then, she starts using her back flippers to dig an egg chamber.
And then when she's done making that egg chamber, she's gonna lay her eggs.
After laying her eggs, the mother covers her nest and heads back to sea.
There's an average of about 100 to 120 eggs in a loggerhead nest, which is 98 percent of our nests is -- are loggerhead sea turtles on these beaches.
They can bury from 10 eggs or one egg to 200 eggs.
And so you never know what you're gonna find inside those nests.
A big part of the conservation effort is to educate local homeowners and beachgoers.
Made-made lighting can cause big problems.
The lighting from the homes are disorienting, sending the hatchlings and the mother turtles in the wrong direction.
All this data has helped identify trends.
And the news is good.
The number of nests in 2016 are up, way up.
Our lowest year was 2007.
Uh, we had about 735 nests.
Our highest year after that was last year, 2015, which was 2,475 nests.
And then this year, we just broke 4,000 nests right now.
And we're still having more nests being laid.
But 30 years ago, it must've been a pretty good year with the number of nests and the number of hatchlings making it to the water and being successful out in the ocean for 30 years.
Mote Marine Labs also provides a rehabilitation center for sick and injured sea turtles.
Sometimes, that includes baby turtles.
Some of the most common things that we have come in to us here are just hatchlings that are disorientated.
So they end up following the brightest light.
Today, sometimes, the brightest light is the traffic lights or condos.
And hatchlings end up getting disorientated.
And we find them in parking lots or up stuck in the dunes.
As an aquarium biologist, Holly West understands the hatchlings' instincts kick in when they hit the water.
Once they enter the water, a hatchling goes through what we call a swim frenzy.
And that swim frenzy is usually about three days long.
And it is designed to get them as far offshore as possible, away from that predator zone or that inshore area.
Um, and so if they end up doing that three days of swimming in a swimming pool or in a storm water drain, we can't release them on the beaches anymore.
So the guys that are here right now are actually gonna get a free ride out to the weed line when we can find a boat to get them out there.
Injured and sick adult sea turtles are cared for by Lynne Byrd, a medical care and rehabilitation and coordinator here.
All the species of sea turtles we deal with are threatened or endangered.
Um, and so we bring them in.
And our goal, obviously, is to rehabilitate and put them back out into the wild.
Meet Bellatrix, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle who was caught on a line by fishermen.
They did do the right thing.
They brought her in for rehab.
Um, and we were unable to, in the hospital, to remove that hook.
And it did such severe damage to her lung, it actually collapsed her right lung.
And so she's not able to be put back into the wild.
We just wanted to make sure she was doing okay.
So we just did routine blood work, took some radiographs, weighed her to make sure she's gaining enough weight.
Um, we did some regular measurements to follow her growth.
And this is Avalon, a green turtle who was injured in the Atlantic.
Obviously, she has boat-prop wounds on her back.
So a lot of times, when turtles get sick, they overinflate their lungs.
And they're find -- floating on the surface.
And they're either taken out by predators.
Or they're more vulnerable to boat strikes.
And she has developed tumors on her shell.
They're called fibropapilloma tumors.
Um, all we know about them is they're caused by a herpes virus.
We know it comes out in times of stress.
So long as they don't have internal tumors, we can remove those external tumors.
Once they're healed, they can be put back out into the wild.
The scientists and volunteers who work with these magnificent creatures are all dedicated to preserving the species for future generations.
We care about these individual animals because without the individuals, we don't have a population.
And if these populations go, um, it's gonna just spiral down.
I'm not studying to be a, you know, a marine scientists or anything like that.
But it's cool to be kind of a citizen scientist and just really be at the forefront of this kind of research.
I would love to see that the turtle nesting doesn't decline and that we continue to see an increase, that in 30 years, my impact is being still seen as I'm seeing the impact of people who started 30 years before me.