By Paula Detwiller
As this year’s sea turtle nesting season winds down, biologists are encouraged by a continuing upward trend in the number of nests seen on Palm Beach County beaches.
“Based on preliminary data, 2011 will be another record-breaker,” said Paul Davis of the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management. “We’ve seen a record number of loggerhead and green turtle nests, and one of the highest counts ever for leatherbacks.”
Davis says by the time nesting season ends on Oct. 31, he expects more than 20,000 sea turtle nests will have been counted on Palm Beach County’s coastline. Last season’s total count was 19,521.
When Hurricane Irene blew by in late August, high surf washed out about half of the existing turtle nests on our coast, according to Davis and marine conservationist Kirt Rusenko at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. Unhatched eggs were destroyed.
Emerging hatchlings were tossed out of their sandy nests. Some died, others ended up far from their nests, and Gumbo Limbo’s hatchling drop-off box filled up quickly.
“Since Aug. 25, we have had more than 300 hatchlings brought to our drop-off box as people are finding them on the beach,” Rusenko said. “Drop-offs can be accepted 24 hours a day. Even if the main gate is locked, they can walk up and put them in the box nearby. We check it regularly.”
The sea turtle nesting season starts on March 1 each year. Leatherback turtles crawl ashore to lay their eggs early in the season, followed by loggerheads, then green sea turtles.
During June and July, the different species’ nesting periods tend to overlap.
“Palm Beach County is one of the few places in the world where we can see all three of these turtle species nesting on the same night,” Davis says. Loggerheads are on the federal government’s threatened species list; leatherbacks and greens are listed as endangered.
In the days after Irene, Gumbo Limbo performed nightly releases of the rescued hatchlings back onto the beach, hoping to trigger the babies’ natural instinct to motor down to the water and swim out to sea. But many of them didn’t have the energy left to do it.
“When they hatch out of their nests, sea turtles go into a swim frenzy that can last for hours or days,” explains Gumbo Limbo marine turtle specialist Melanie Stadler. “The swim frenzy is nature’s way of providing them with enough energy to swim 30 miles offshore to reach the sargassum (floating seaweed they feed on). When they become displaced or disoriented, they use up that energy, and they can’t swim.”
That’s when the folks at Gumbo Limbo arrange boat rides for the tiny creatures out to the sargassum with the help of volunteer boat owners. After being dropped off, the hatchlings can focus their energies on nourishment — and survival.
If you find a dead hatchling on the beach, Rusenko says to leave it where it is, or bury it in the sand.
Sea turtles found on land that are palm-sized or larger, dead or alive, should be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at (888) 404-