Stakes and tape advised caution last year around a sea turtle nest on Pass-a-Grille Beach. Loggerheads begin nesting during the spring and summer along many Suncoast beaches. AliveTampaBay photo by Greg C. Truax.
By Krista Lyons, AliveTampaBay Correspondent
The early morning sun is just beginning to peek over the hotels when Joe Widlansky and Bruno Falkenstein, as well as their team of volunteers and Sea Turtle Trackers, begin combing the shoreline of the gulf beaches searching for turtle nests. In just a few short months, the Sea Turtles Trackers team will make sure that the silver-dollar-sized turtles safely make it from their nests and find their way to the sea, following the moonlight for guidance.
Loggerhead sea turtles begin nesting during the spring and summer along many of the area’s beaches. Female turtles can lay 100 to 150 eggs on average — and each female can lay an average of three to eight nests, creating several turtle nests where beach-goers may come across them. However, with all of the development on the beach and the constant lights and noise, the sea turtles can become confused.
To assist with education and sea turtle conservation, Falkenstein and his team of sea turtle experts formed Sea Turtle Trackers, a local nonprofit that focuses on conservation and education. The team has worked to keep sea turtle nests safe in St. Pete Beach and Shell Key Preserve, and helps keep the bay area a friendly place for sea turtles. Widlansky took a break from educating the public about sea turtles to chat with us about the upcoming sea turtle nesting season.
AliveTampaBay: When exactly is nesting season in Tampa?
Joe Widlansky: Officially it is May 1 through October 31. But, we can sometimes see a little bit of variation on that depending on the weather during the year.
ATB: What is a day in the life of a sea turtle tracker like?
JW: We patrol the beach every morning at dawn and we look for new turtle nests where a mother has come up during the night. Then we rope them off so that they are marked with tape so that nobody runs them over — there are a lot of vehicles on the beach that people don’t even think about like the police and the garbage collectors and the guys who rent the cabanas. People are up and down the beach all day and the nests have to be very visible so none of them get run over. We will go and then we basically monitor the nests, which take 50-60 days to hatch, and then around day 50 we have volunteers that will keep an eye on the ones that are ready to hatch because a lot of times on the beach, the turtles get disoriented. They are programmed to head toward the brightest thing they see.
Unfortunately, a lot of the lights from the hotels on the beach, which we are working on, we are working with people to try to (make things) better, but there’s a lot of buildings and lights on the beach. But we are making progress.
ATB: I never thought about that with the lights — that is very interesting that they are affected by those.
JW: Oh yeah. Now it has become a problem recently too, with people who have cell phones walking down the beach in the middle of the night. It literally scares the mother turtles back into the water. Also, sea turtles react to amber or red colored lights. So white lights like your bright cell phone really messes them up.
When they hatch, they are trying to follow the moonlight into the sea, so our goal is to help them find their way to the water without too many lights or distractions. The eggs hatch in the nest over a period of a couple of days. The hatchlings will then dig their way to the surface to come out all at one time.
ATB: Are there ever eggs that don’t hatch? If so, what happens to them?
JW: There are are usually some unhatched eggs left in the nest for several reasons. The eggs may have not been fertile, they may have stopped developing for genetic reasons, they might have been damaged from roots. We do an inventory of the nest after 72 hours post-hatch and document the results for an FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) report we submit at the end of the season.
ATB: Do you ever find stranded sea turtles as well?
JW: Yes. One of the things we do is to document stranded turtles for FWC, and if they are dead, we will dispose of them unless the state wants them.
If they are alive, I contact the state to see where they want us to take it. Usually they go to Clearwater Marine Aquarium because they take live turtles, so we work pretty closely with them for strandings. Last year we had 40 or so that we responded to. Last year was a bad year for stranding. Pinellas County had a really bad time. It is down this year; we have not responded to too many this year. Of course (it is still early), but since we have had such a warm winter without many cold fronts that blow the sick ones onto shore, if they are dying, they die out in the gulf and sink to the bottom eventually. But usually, with warmer water, they survive better, and there are less strandings and less sick turtles. Warmer water is better for the turtles in general.
ATB: If someone wants to volunteer with your team, what can they do?
JW: There is a whole host of things that we do. One of the things volunteers can do is to patrol with a staff member in the morning. We have a website so that people can sign up for it, and they can get out in the morning.
People can also sign up for the boat to go over to Shell Key where they patrol for nests. Then we also do a large number of events during the year to educate people. We just got invited again this year to the Raymond James sustainability fair. Every Tuesday I do a turtle talk at the Guy Harvey TradeWinds resort for the tourists, so if anyone is ever interested in learning more specifics, you can find me there. Education is a really big thing and we really need help at all of these events.
Also we do beach cleanups. Beach cleanups are a big one — if the beach is dirty, it can be even harder for the turtles and the marine life. We also have what we are calling cage building day because nests out on Shell Key can be damaged. We put a self-releasing cage over the nest to protect from coyotes so we have to have a lot of them made. Some of them were damaged by storms so they are repairable but sometimes we have to build new ones. So we work with volunteers to build the new ones.
There is just a ton of stuff to do. We can always use the extra help to keep the sea turtles safe.
To find out more about sea turtle nesting season or to sign up to volunteer, visit SeaTurtleTrackers.org.
Interviews may be condensed and edited for brevity, clarity and style.