ANNA MARIA — Endangered sea turtles are expected to begin nesting any day now on Anna Maria Island beaches, and officials are asking for the public’s help not only in observing the ancient ritual but also in protecting the turtles.
Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth and are believed to have been nesting on beaches for 110 million years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But the journey from water to sand and back again is fraught for the turtles and their hatchlings, with peril from artificial lighting and scavengers. Survival of hatchlings depends mostly on beach-goers and residents.
Efforts to educate the public about the perils of beach lighting on hatchlings heading to the ocean from their nests have increased.
Turtle become disoriented and thousands are killed each year as they wander onto roadways instead of using natural light as a guide to the ocean, according to Fish and Wildlife. Artificial lights not only can send hatchlings in the wrong direction, but cause females to abort nesting and head back for the ocean without laying eggs.
During the official sea turtle season between May 1 and Oct. 31, officials are urging beach communities to eliminate artificial lighting during nesting season, and a public workshop is being offered Wednesday by state officials and hosted by Mote Marine Laboratory. Tips on keeping beaches dark during nesting season will be given.
“That is a meeting we would recommend to everyone. It is extremely important,” said Suzi Fox, head of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch.
Each year Turtle Watch teams up with the state to certify dozens of beach patrol volunteers to monitor 1-mile stretches of Anna Maria for turtle activity.
The patrols are done daily at sunrise to search for nests and signs of turtles nesting. Data is tabulated and compiled for state research. And it is a popular endeavor, according to Fox.
Those wanting to volunteer for this year’s sea turtle season with Turtle Watch must attend an April 23 workshop held by the group at Holmes Beach City Hall, Fox said.
By the end of the workshop, volunteers will be permitted by the state to participate in the Turtle Watch study, Fox said.
“Volunteers will come out of the workshop permitted, so it will be exciting,” she said.
Fox has already been searching for sea turtle nests on Anna Maria since April 1. She combs Anna Maria beaches on an ATV each morning. She said no nests have been found on Anna Maria or in Florida yet, but she expects them soon. “The water is getting warmer so we could see one any day now to launch us into this season,” she said.