MANATEE -- Sea turtle nesting is once again occurring at "extraordinary rates" from Anna Maria Island south to Venice.
Female sea turtles are following up last year's all-time record of 362 nests with a six-month nesting season nearly as strong.
Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring has recorded 299 loggerhead nests from the start of the season in May through Sunday, said Suzi Fox of AMI Turtle Watch.
Mote Marine Laboratories Sea Turtle Patrol has documented 1,365 loggerhead nests on a 35-mile stretch from Longboat Key to Venice from the start of season through July 6, said spokeswoman Hayley Rutger. Last year, there was a record 2,462 nests, Rutger said.
Although likely to fall short of the 2012 mark, Mote's 2013 nesting numbers have already surpassed season-long totals for loggerhead nesting in 2010 (1,243 loggerhead, 14 green) and 2011 (1,284 loggerhead, seven green). Loggerheads nest every two to three years, Rutger said, which makes these comparisons useful.
Fox said sea turtle nesting is burgeoning because of sound protection practices.
"Sea turtles became protected with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and it takes female turtles 20 to 30 years to be sexually mature," Fox added. "So maybe the nesting turtles we are seeing now were among the first to be protected."
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed by President Richard Nixon, also protected the whooping crane, gray wolf, gray whale and other many other species.
Rutger offered Mote Marine Laboratory's theory.
"One of the possibilities out there is that loggerhead turtles might be following cycles that have to do with long-term climate changes," Rutger said.
Glenn Wiseman, a volunteer with Fox for 15 years, is surprised by the back-to-back strong numbers, but he said it is too soon to call it a trend.
"When last year was the biggest season ever we thought this year would slow down," Wiseman said. "But this year is keeping pace and getting close to that number again. It's hard to say why. Trends take a long time. I will say the fishing practices are better now. Fishermen call us all the time and tell us they see sea turtles. It appears to be a cooperative effort that is helping sustain these numbers."
Another reason Anna Maria Island attracts so many nesting turtles is AMI Turtle Watch education programs have heightened awareness of sea turtle needs.
"People are implementing sea turtle friendly lighting and people are now coming to the island to witness our sea turtle program," Fox said. "I think people have become partners in this now. The awareness is out there."
Fox offers fixtures and light bulbs that don't distract sea turtles from where they need to go.
AMI tourists also have learned not to take flash photos of the turtles with a camera or cell phone.
Mote scientists, however, say not everyone is turtle-friendly. Mote scientists have documented 23 instances where adult female sea turtles became disoriented this year compared with 12 females in 2010, 15 in 2011 and 10 last year.
Disorientations occur when adult females veer from the beach due after encountering distractions such as artificial lighting from waterfront properties, beachgoers coming too close -- especially if they carry flashlights -- and natural predators such as raccoons.
Disoriented female turtles and hatchlings can end up crawling long distances, wandering in loops or heading away from the sea -- behaviors that can exhaust their energy and put them in harm's way. This year, Mote scientists rescued one disoriented female turtle with its head wedged under a rock groin. Last year, a turtle wandered into the road and was hit by a car.
The public can prevent disorientation by keeping beaches dark and giving nesting turtles plenty of space. Beach visitors, residents and businesses should use the following tips to keep beaches turtle friendly throughout nesting season.
If you encounter a nesting turtle, remain quiet and observe from a distance.
Shield outdoor lights visible on the beach from May through October.
Close drapes after dark and put beach furniture far back from the water.
Fill in holes on the beach that could trap hatchlings on their way to the water.
Do not use flashlights or fishing lamps on the beach.
Do not encourage a turtle to move while nesting or pick up hatchlings heading for water.
Do not use fireworks on the beach.
Harassing or interfering with sea turtles is illegal. If you witness anyone disturbing a turtle or find an injured or disoriented hatchling or adult, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or call Mote Marine Laboratory's Sea Turtle Program at 941-388-4331.
If you find a dead or injured sea turtle, dolphin or whale in Sarasota or Manatee counties, call Mote's Stranding Investigations Program at 941-988-0212.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.