By Larry Keller
As surely as the sun rises in the east, David Anderson and others from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center are on the beach, excavating and cataloguing data as carefully as archaeologists. They’re searching not for fossils, but the nests of sea turtles — resilient reptiles that have been around since the time of dinosaurs.
“We’re having a great year for nesting,” Anderson, Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtle conservation coordinator, said at Red Reef Park recently as the sun poked up from the ocean.
Even a historic year.
By late July, a record number of green turtle nests were found on Boca Raton beaches this season, surpassing the previous high of 331 in 2013. Green turtles nest on area beaches from June to September. They nest in greater numbers every other year, but that alone doesn’t explain the record high.
The highest number of loggerhead nests recorded by the center on the five miles of beach it patrols was 1,075 in 1990. This year, 880 nests had been discovered as of late July. Loggerheads nest here from April until September, so this season could be a record high for them too.
Leatherbacks — the largest of the sea turtle species — come ashore in small numbers from February through May. The center found 18 of their nests this year — same as last year.
Nesting season roughly parallels that of baseball — March 1 to Oct. 31. Stragglers may nest as late as November or December.
The turtle nesting tallies are encouraging elsewhere too.
“The greens have (nested) beyond belief,” said Barbara James, the marine turtle permit holder for Highland Beach. Green turtles began nesting in May, a month earlier this season on the town’s 3 miles of beach, James said. “They’re early and they’re coming on strong.”
It has been an average season for loggerhead and leatherback nests, she added.
There also has been a “significant increase” this season in green turtle nests on the 3 miles of beach monitored by Sea Turtle Adventures, said Jackie Kingston, the organization’s president and founder. It surveys a stretch of sand fronting Gulf Stream, Briny Breezes and part of Ocean Ridge.
“We’re predicting we may have our highest total number (of all nests) in 21 years, and it’s mostly because of the greens,” Kingston said. The record is 1,077 nests in 2017.
Kingston’s group counted 10 leatherback nests this year, which is average. Loggerheads “are about the same or a little bit higher than normal,” she said.
When monitors spot a new nest, they record the species — based on the type of tracks — and location, and place stakes with signs attached advising the public not to disturb it.
About two months later, 100 or so turtles will hatch, dig their way out of the sand and head to the ocean — typically at night.
Turtle teams wait 72 hours after spotting hatchling tracks to excavate the nest site by hand and take an inventory of hatched shells, dead embryos and hatchlings, live hatchlings trapped in the sand and so on.
At Red Reef Park, Anderson examined a green turtle nest raided by a raccoon. A small skunk lurked hopefully in nearby seagrass. Anderson found 18 damaged eggs, but those buried deeper were intact. He covered them with sand, then placed a screen made of welded wire over the nest to prevent foxes and raccoons from intruding again. The openings were still big enough for the hatchlings to emerge.
Anderson also carries hot habanero powder — “ass kickin,” the maker promises. His permit allows him to sprinkle some on slightly disturbed nests. It deters predators for a few days.
Anderson then moved on to excavate a nest in which loggerhead hatchlings had surfaced three days earlier. Among the detritus: one live baby stuck in the sand, and another still partially in an egg.
After he extracted them, one hatchling was particularly hellbent on high-tailing it to the sea, but Anderson placed both in a plastic bucket to be taken to Gumbo Limbo. They would be returned to the beach that night and released, improving their odds of making it safely to the surf.
Every successful hatchling matters because so few survive for long. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that only about 1 in 1,000 makes it to adulthood because most die from dehydration before reaching the ocean, or become food for predators such as birds and crabs. More predators await young turtles if they do make it to water.
“Probably the odds are worse than that now because of light pollution,” Anderson said. “The turtles get disoriented.”
He and Kingston said coastal residents for the most part have been good about complying with turtle-friendly light ordinances. But other sources such as beachgoers’ cellphones and flashlights, and urban sky glow can still confuse turtles.
Kingston added that it’s been a trying year in terms of people leaving things on the beach such as kayaks and chairs that impede mother turtles coming ashore and hatchlings crawling out to sea.
Mother turtles may opt for a “false crawl” and not nest on the beach when obstacles are in their way. As for hatchlings, Kingston said, “Expending any more energy hurts their odds to be one of the few to survive.”
To learn more about sea turtle nesting, visit www.gumbolimbo.org/Sea-Turtles