It’s the time of year when sea turtle nests hatch and that means lots of work for Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch. Volunteers walk the beach daily to check the status of marked nests and for tracks of hatch-lings in the sand. The hatch-lings dig their way out from under the sand, usually during the night, and attracted by the moonlight over the water make their journey to the sea.
Three days after the nests have hatched, licensed personnel excavate the turtle nest site to collect data. By counting the empty shells the number of hatched turtles are recorded, along with unhatched, unfertilized eggs and ones that died in the hole. Sometimes a few left behind are retrieved out of the collapsed sand, protected from day-time predators, and re-released at night.
Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch is a 28-year-old organization of volunteers who have followed the latest accepted methods for protecting the nests of sea turtles on this 7-mile-long island. Years ago, these methods involved removing all the eggs from the beach so they could hatch in total safety. In more recent years the scientific community has realized that all aspects of the turtles’ natural experience are important, and there now is much less human intervention. Eggs are not relocated unless absolutely necessary, and, even then, it is to another location under the sand, near the original nest.
Gulf beaches, and even some on the bay side, are monitored. This island is unusual in having sea turtle activity on the bay side; nests are found in the areas of the piers of the city of Anna Maria. The efforts and practices of AMITW are coordinated with county, state and federal efforts. Nearby Mote Marine Laboratory acts as an additional information resource and, occasionally, a destination for rescued sea turtles in need of medical attention.
Five species of sea turtle are active around Anna Maria Island, but almost all the nests here are loggerhead turtles. This year is unusual in that there have been two nests of green turtles.
Watching out for sea turtles does not mean actually watching sea turtles. In fact, the fewer encounters these ancient creatures have with humans, the better. The dedicated volunteers of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch understand this. Even the volunteers who walk the beaches before dawn are not likely to see a mature sea turtle. And if they happen to spot one, they give her plenty of room to lay her eggs, cover them and lumber back to the water. Usually, the only thing the dawn patroller finds is turtle tracks, indicating that a nest may have been created in the middle of the night. A supervisor is contacted to determine whether this is indeed the case, and to place stakes and a ribbon around the location to protect it for the two months it takes for the eggs to hatch.
The dedicated volunteers of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch will meet on April 23 to organize and train themselves for the upcoming sea turtle season, which officially runs from May 1 through October. Director Suzi Fox will welcome back the “walkers” from past years, inform them of any new things they need to do this year, and she’ll also present images and information to new people who want to join. Individuals sign up for one day a week, and for one particular section of the beach. It is then their responsibility to walk that section on that day, looking for turtle tracks, and phoning the section supervisor to report anything found, by 7:30 at the latest.
If there is anything of interest, the supervisor then goes to the site, and determines whether a nest was made. If so, a great deal of data is recorded and the nest is marked. Toward the end of the season, the focus will be more on discovering whether the nests have hatched, and whether the hatchlings have made it to the sea. Again, this takes place at night and is rarely seen. It is the tiny tracks, often as many as 100 from a single nest, that reveal the good news that 100 new sea turtles have been born. It is sobering to note that only one out of a thousand will survive to adulthood. They will be preyed upon by a wide range of animals, starting with the crabs and birds on the beach.