No matter what weirdness may be happening in the world these days, the discovery each spring of the first sea turtle nests on Anna Maria Island’s beaches is a refreshing reminder of nature’s eternally consistency — as long as mankind doesn’t get in her way.
“It’s like winning the Lotto every year,” said Suzi Fox, conservationist and director of Anna Maria Island Turtle and Shorebird Monitoring since 1997 and a turtle nest watcher since 1990.
The first nests of the season were laid on Anna Maria Island on Friday. By Sunday — Mother’s Day — a determined loggerhead sea turtle mom crawled in the darkness to make a nest for her hatchlings — there were a total of eight, Fox said.
Along with the eight nests made by the sea turtles, who return to the beaches where they were born when they are sexually mature at about 35 years of age to mate and lay eggs, there were 12 false crawls left in the sand.
A false crawl, although not fully understood by scientists, could happen when a turtle senses something she isn’t comfortable with and returns to the sea without making a nest, perhaps to try again at another location, Fox said.
“I feel just like I felt in 1990,” Fox added when asked about her reactions to the first nests of the season. “It’s exciting. It makes you happy. All the bad things in the world are wiped out by that one first nest.”
Sea turtle moms, who only leave the sea in darkness to make their nests, crawl up on the beach and use their rear flippers to dig out a deep hole in the sand into which they deposit about 110 eggs. They use their rear flippers to push the sand back and pack it down and use their front flippers to fling sand over the whole area as a camouflage technique, Fox said.
Baby turtles hatch in 45 to 70 days to return to the sea.
Fox’s team will check the nest three days after the first hatchlings are out to see of any babies are stuck inside.
Last year, the first nest appeared on May 8, but by May 14 there were eight, same as this year, Fox said.
Anna Maria Island recorded a record number of nests last year with 435, which produced a non-record 18,328 hatchlings, Fox added.
Fox believes that the record nests in 2016 and the record hatchling number of 23,234 from 369 nests in 2013 indicate that conservationists’ message to the public to keep nesting turtles from being disoriented by turning off lights at night and steering clear of marked nests is working.
“The public’s good deeds are being paid back,” Fox said. “Although no one is sure exactly why the numbers are so good lately, we believe it is all of our education efforts.”
Sea turtles make big loop
Only one out of 1,000 Anna Maria Island loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings will live to be an adult.
But, when one beats the odds, it has survived digging out of its mother’s deep, fluffy nest on AMI, a frantic crawl to the Gulf of Mexico and an exhausting swim to the grass beds located about 20 miles off shore.
Eventually, when they have grown, the juvenile turtles swim through the Florida Keys to the Atlantic Ocean and work their way toward Europe, where they grow large eating shellfish off the coast of Portugal.
When they are sexually mature, from age 25 to 35, they return to the same AMI shore and beach to mate and to lay their nests.
Fox is the leader of a small army of 87 fellow sea turtle lovers who, around 5 a.m., put on their florescent green turtle jerseys and turtle shoes and walk along the 7.25 miles of beach to look for turtle tracks and fluffy thrown sand so the nests can be marked with yellow stakes and hot pink ribbons.
“Our phone number is on the stakes if anyone needs to reach us,” Fox said.
Tips for being friendly to sea turtles
- Always turns lights out at night because lights can disorient nesting mothers and, eventually, hatchlings.
- Don’t leave tents, sun screens, or any other large objects up on the beach during nesting season because turtles can bump into them.
- Remove trash from the beach and fill all deep holes.
- Steer clear of all turtle nests, which are marked by volunteers with yellow stakes and hot pink ribbons.
- If something looks wrong at a nest site, immediately call Anna Maria Island Turtle and Shorebird Monitoring, 941-232-1405.
Information from Suzi Fox, director, Anna Maria Island Turtle and Shorebird Monitoring