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.
They also will suffer from loss of habitat. Even where conditions allow them to nest, human presence can cause big problems for them. The human behavior most lethal to sea turtles is the use of bright lights. These disorient the hatchlings when they dig their way out of the sand. Usually, the relative light of the water attracts them in the right direction, to the sea. But artificial lighting also attracts them, and, when it does, it leads them inland, to be run over by cars, eaten by animals, and exhausted as they keep looking for the water environment that is their home.
For this reason, one of the biggest parts of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch program is talking people into turning out their lights during sea turtle season, if they live on or near the beach. A lot of people do not like doing this, but the survival of a species depends on it. It isn’t a matter of turtle versus man. It’s a matter of whether we want to live on the planet all by ourselves, or with the rich diversity of other life that enhances human life, as well.