What is thought to be the first leatherback sea turtle nest ever in the “mainland” Florida Keys was discovered this month, and it looks like some hatchlings have made it to the water and more hatchlings are expected.
The nest is at Bahia Honda State Park at mile marker 36.8 in the Lower Keys. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife biologist Sue Schaf said the last time leatherback nests were found down here was in 2004, when three were found in the Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West.
“I guess (the Bahia Honda) turtle got a little lost,” Schaf said.
The most common sea turtles in the Keys are greens and loggerheads, though the occasional Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill also arrive. Like leatherbacks, all are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Bahia Honda leatherback nest was discovered July 14, Bahia Honda park services specialist Keely Final said. The original “crawl,” when the mother comes out of the water to nest, was May 17, she said.
“The amount of sand that was disturbed was at least triple the size of a normal crawl we see at the beaches here,” Final said.
Ranger Elaine Mason discovered a circular depression in the sand that indicates a hatched nest. Upon investigating, she found a live hatchling emerging from the nest. Schaf, who specializes in sea turtles, confirmed the find. The hatchling was healthy and active and ready to swim.
Zaharah Buck, an 8-year-old junior ranger from Michigan, had the honor of releasing the baby into the ocean. The nest was left alone for the next 72 hours to await more hatchlings and then evaluation. Periodic monitoring of the nest revealed more turtle tracks, indicating more emerging hatchlings, Final said.
On July 17, staff from the park, FWC and Save a Turtle evaluated the nest, taking sand samples and measurements, then started to dig. To their surprise, there was a live hatchling in the clutch cavity. It was measured, photographed and named Franklin. Franklin was tucked away with damp sand in a dark environment to mimic the nest and kept until nightfall to be released.
The final count for the nest was seven hatched, 46 unfertilized eggs, 11 fertilized eggs and one hatchling died. That made for a total of 65 eggs.
“It’s amazing,” Bette Zirkelbach, manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, said. “I’m really excited.”
Final said the low number of hatchlings might be attributed to high tides in June; the nest had possible saltwater intrusion.
She said the park will have to wait two to three years to see if the mother leatherback returns to lay another nest, and anywhere from nine to 13 years to see if the hatchlings that emerged return to the park beach to lay nests.
Leatherbacks are deepwater turtles, so if one is in shallow water, it likely is sick if not nesting. About three years ago, one was found off the Keys wrapped in trap rope, but it was removed at sea, Zirkelbach said.
About six to eight years ago, an injured leatherback was found off the Keys and brought to the Turtle Hospital. The hospital tanks weren’t big enough for it, so it was brought via flatbed truck to a pool at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, where it died.
Larry Kahn: 305-440-3218