Saturday, June 15, 2013

Up at the Crack of Dawn

"Jeannie, wake up! It's time to get up!" (Jeannie is Sparky's REAL name, in case you didn't know. :-)
"Hunnnnhhhhh....I'm too tired, I'm gonna sleep in..."...
"It's turtle nesting time, remember? You said you wanted to go...."

Oh, yeah...forgot....Every Saturday and some other days as well, the Mote Marine staff heads out to the local beaches to check the status of the loggerhead turtle nests during nesting season, May 1-October 1. And every Saturday, the public is invited at the crack of dawn, 6:45 AM, to join them as they walk the beach, look for nests, monitor any new turtle tracks they see, measure tracks, and do all the cool things they do to protect the loggerhead turtles from people and predators. Sparky dragged herself promptly out of bed after remembering this.

This morning we met out at the Hilton hotel pool area at Longboat Key promptly at 6:45 AM to head out onto the beach. There was a marked nest right outside the beach chairs on the hotel front property. It's the orange tape in the background near the water. It's actually closer to the beach chairs than it is to the water.
A Mote worker spoke to a small group of us first, giving us some general information about loggerheads, and had some exciting news! She got to see one come out of the water to lay its eggs about 45 minutes earlier! The turtle had come and gone, but she had more to show us. C'mon! Sparky is ready to go! We walked the beach for about fifteen minutes until we came upon this....
Turtle tracks! Loggerhead turtle tracks. Almost all the turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs (hundreds of them!) on the local beaches are loggerheads. These are BIG tracks!  Loggerheads can weigh about 300 pounds and up. These tracks look like tractor tire tracks, they are so big. You can tell by the direction of the "swoosh" marks of the flippers which way the turtle is going, but Sparky didn't quite see that at first.

This was the turtle track that the Mote worker saw the turtle making this morning. Here is a better view.

Unfortunately, this particular turtle chose to try and navigate around some beach chairs. Condo owners are requested to bring in their chairs at night to help the sea turtles be able to nest, but the best that some people can do is to group the chairs in bunches off to the sides. It's a hassle schlepping the chairs back and forth every day at some distance for some of the residents.

The female turtle had lots of trouble. The researcher showed how she came in to the edge of the sand and grasses bank, got trapped around the lounge chairs, and struggled to get back out. Turtles can NOT back up on land, so this turtle went in and around the chairs in circles. Something instinctively didn't feel right about the chosen site, so she left and went back out to the water.

It was documented as a "false crawl". Somebody asked what happens to the eggs if she is not able to lay them? The researcher said they don't really know if she'll come back and try again, or they will get released in the water or exactly what happens.
This is quite the project with tons of volunteers taking information, reporting information, watching the nests, and documenting activity, hatching, etc. It takes 55 days for when the eggs are laid to when they hatch. The researchers even document the G.P.S. coordinates of each nest in addition to measuring turtle tracks, depth of nest, etc.
The Mote researcher talked about why all the condo lights on the beach are red. Apparently, red lights do not affect the turtles' orientation as the hatchlings emerge from the nest at night, seeking the brightest light which is the horizon and the seawater. She said that if anybody even turned on a regular light inside their condo and had the drapes open, that the baby turtles would head towards the condos when they hatch. They have light ordinances in the coastal beach communities to protect the turtles' nesting and hatching instincts.

The researcher said that in addition to observing lighting ordinances in these communities, people can help sea turtles by diligently picking up trash from the beaches, and filling in holes in the sand after digging and having fun burying your family and/or friends. The baby turtles fall in the holes that people dig and can't get out. Then the gulls swoop in and eat them....

The researcher was glad to see this black crowned night heron walking the beach with us this morning. Night herons are not all that common on the beach she said. They eat ghost crabs, which eat baby turtles, so that's a bird you want to see roaming the beach where the nesting sites are!
On we walked a little more...We found an actual nest. To the untrained eye, it's hard to see that this is a nest.
To the rear of the photo is a rounded edge. This is the edge that the loggerhead's shell left behind as she dug a hole for her eggs. The front of the nest has little fresh piles of sand that were flung in front and to the sides as she dug her hole. Once you know what to look for, it's like---oh, sure! Now I see it!
Sparky is definitely going to come back for a few more Saturdays in hopes of seeing some new activity. The babies don't hatch in broad daylight, so the chances of seeing some little ones are pretty slim, but you never know! It was really worth getting up early this morning to see turtle nests and learn all about loggerheads...Hey, you might even see some other cool stuff! Like this...
One morning, the researcher saw a 7 foot hammerhead shark washed up on the beach!

After about an hour, it was time to head back....A wonderful early morning walk on a Saturday morning. Sparky might just get to be an early bird riser....(HA! says E. This I gotta see!) He's the early bird--about 5:00 or so, Sparky is more like 7:00 or so....Until next time.....


  1. Very neat ... definitely worth getting up early.

  2. Too cool up early and learning about the turtles. 300 lbs plus wow , would love to see one of those guys.

  3. Being on turtle patrol when the eggs are due to hatch is one of the most exciting things I've done as a volunteer. At the rate you're going, you'll still be at Fun 'N Sun long enough to maybe do that. ;)

  4. It is such an amazing thing to watch the eggs hatch, and those little guys heading back out to the ocean! Definitely a must do for you :)

    1. I think they hatch in the dead of night, that might be difficult to get to see them!

  5. I am so glad you drug yourself out of bed for this. Well worth it for us. Thanks.

  6. OH wow! I'd be there in a heartbeat any and every time if there was a chance to see that. But I'm with Eldy, an early riser. Thanks for taking me along. Can we go again?? Please!!

  7. Fascinating information about these turtles and their nesting habits. I would love to volunteer if it wasn't during the warm season. Glad you found it worthwhile to get up and head to the beach!

  8. Wow exciting. I hope you get to see some baby turtles and I hope you take a lot of pictures!