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.
Nearly 90 volunteers share the tasks, which include walking the island’s beaches before dawn, to find, mark, and record nesting activity. These dedicated people also conduct public education talks and welcome the public to observe various events throughout the nesting season. They respond to sea turtle strandings, which are the washing ashore of ill or injured turtles.
Sea turtle nesting events usually start in May and lasts into October, when the responsibilities of volunteers become more and more focused on watching for hatching activity, making sure the baby sea turtle hatchlings made it to the sea, and eventually digging up each nest to count how many eggs hatched, and how many failed to hatch. Sometimes live hatchlings are found still trying to dig their way out, perhaps having a problem because of obstacles such as sea grass roots or hard-packed deposits of sand.
The data for this year is extremely encouraging. Pete Gross, who does meticulous statistical calculations for Anna Maria Turtle Watch, reports that, as of early October, 2012, the total number of nests was 362, as compared to 155, which is the average total number of nests for the past 15 years. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Debby wiped out a lot of nests, but the good news is that after that storm, there were 183 new nests, which still is higher than the average total for most seasons.
Over 12,400 baby sea turtle hatchlings had made it to the Gulf by early October this year. This is an excellent outcome. The year 1999 produced a stellar 19,315 number of hatchlings to the sea even though the total number of nests was fewer than this year. More of those nests were successful without the flooding caused by Debby’s high water.
Several years ago, the scope of AMITW was expanded to include the monitoring of shore birds, many of which nest on the island’s beaches. These include Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, and Snowy Plovers. Other species that nest here are Wilson Plovers, Willets, and even the endangered Piping Plover. One of the main tasks of the shore bird volunteers is keeping the public away from the nests, which often are very hard to see, and always are very fragile. The birds are most threatened at times such as July 4 with the increase in crowds.
Some people are impatient with the efforts of those who try to protect other species, claiming that our own species matters more than any other. The fact is that protecting other species also is in the best interest of our own welfare. Keeping the beach clean, quiet and dark for other species also keeps it a more natural and beautiful place for all our island’s residents and visitors. Asking people to remove their beach paraphernalia at the end of the day is not an act that favors animals over humans. It favors a healthy, beautiful beach over a cluttered, unnatural, distressed one.
If you come across sea turtle hatchlings heading in the wrong direction towards structures and roadways instead of toward the sea, notify Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch at 941-778-5638 or 248-982-5500