MANATEE -- The first sea turtle nests of the season were discovered days ago on Captiva Island near Naples and on Longboat Key in Sarasota County.
That can only mean one thing.
Gulf of Mexico waters are warming and female sea turtles are making their trek onto Manatee County beaches to lay roughly 100 golf ball-size eggs in nests 2-feet-wide and 6- to 8-feet long. The six-month season begins today.
In response, 89 volunteers will begin monitoring the nests to safeguard them beginning Wednesday, said Suzi Fox, director of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.
"I go by 22 years of experience," Fox said when asked how she knows when the season begins. "The first thing I do every morning when I get out of bed is let the dogs out and feel the weather. I've done that every morning since April 1. On Tuesday, it felt moist and warm. I knew we would begin to get calls."
When Gulf temperature reaches 80 degrees, it signals females that the sand is warm enough to incubate eggs, Fox said.
It takes about 45 to 55 days for the eggs to incubate, leaving the first hatchlings to make their way to the sea in mid-June.
"It's real exciting," said Glenn Wiseman, education director for the nonprofit Turtle Watch Fox started to protect the turtles. "The water temperature is up. It looks good for Manatee."
At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, eight volunteers will begin walking Manatee beaches, looking for crawl marks left by females going to and from a nest.
The volunteers will put stakes around the nests and ribbons on the stake with a phone number to call should the nest appear in distress.
2012 highs and lows
A record 362 nests were discovered on Manatee beaches in 2012, which includes the southernmost nests found at Coquina Beach near Longboat Pass to the farthest north on the bayside and gulfside of Anna Maria Island.
But tragedy struck in late June when Tropical Storm Debbysurged onto beaches, destroying 170 turtle nests and an estimated 17,000 turtle eggs, Fox said.
"Our volunteers were calling us all day long," Fox said. "We had told them 'Do not go to the beach. It's too dangerous.' But they did anyway. They were holding buckets of eggs. They found eggs rolling in the surf."
Unfortunately, most rescued eggs were water-soaked and did not hatch, Fox added.
Despite the storm damage, volunteeres still shepherded 13,000 hatchlings to the sea last year, Fox said.
Fox anticipates another season of roughly 360 nests.
"The sea turtles can endure Mother Nature, it's man-made problems that the turtles can't endure," Fox said.
Every year, female turtles get confused by bright lights at night from car or house lights and wander off course.
They also run into beach furniture and can be stranded in holes dug into the beach.
Beach nourishment challenge
Fox and her crew also face three beach replenishment projects this season, which could affect the turtles.
"One is at Coquina Beach, one at Cortez Beach around the fishing piers and another is federal," Fox said. "I have done 28 nourishing projects, some small and some large, and so we are well versed. We are a little nervous, but also excited. We are very well trained for it."
The agencies doing the renourishing will work closely with Fox's group, she said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.