ABOVE: Rebecca Germany, sea turtle conservation assistant at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, excavates a loggerhead nest in Boca Raton three days after the eggs had hatched.
BELOW LEFT: A baby loggerhead makes its way to the ocean after being rescued by Joan Lorne of Sea Turtle Adventures during a nest excavation in Gulf Stream. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
It’s a banner year for sea turtle nests up and down Palm Beach County’s coast and all around the state.
It’s the result, experts say, of decades of educational efforts and government protection.
Boca Raton’s Gumbo Limbo Nature Center reported finding its record-setting 1,325th nest (and nine others) on July 28; two days earlier the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach announced it had documented more than 20,998 nests, also a record.
And on Aug. 10 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said total nests by loggerheads and green turtles would surpass those species’ statewide annual records.
As of July 31, the agency said, there were 127,808 loggerheads nests (previous record was 122,707 in 2016) and 56,151 green turtle nests (previous record was 53,102 in 2017).
“And the nesting season isn’t over yet,” the FWC said. “We look forward to seeing what the final nest counts will be!”
Conservation pays off
Is the tame start to 2023’s hurricane season somehow boosting the sea turtles’ maternal instincts? Or climate change? Maybe sea-level rise?
Not at all, say the people who monitor the beaches.
“I honestly believe the increase, and now record-breaking season this year, is in part due to decades of conservation efforts now coming to fruition,” said David Anderson, Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtle conservation coordinator. “After all, it takes 20 to 25 years for sea turtles to reach sexual maturity and we are seeing the results of decades of protection.”
By Aug. 28, Anderson’s eight-person sea turtle conservation team and a few volunteers had counted 1,389 total nests on Boca Raton beaches: 1,038 loggerhead, 323 green and 28 leatherback. The previous record of 1,324 was set in 2019.
“On any given morning, there are about five of us on the beach, splitting up in different directions to cover Boca’s 5 miles,” he said. “A busy year is more enjoyable, but it makes the mornings longer.
“The more nests we have, the more work we put in. We start at the same time every morning, about 30 minutes before sunrise. A busy nesting season, however, means that we will be on the beach longer since there are more nests to mark, more nests to protect from predators, more nests that will hatch, more nests to inventory after hatch, etc.”
‘Quite busy’ everywhere
Mornings were also hopping for Sea Turtle Adventures Inc., which monitors 3 miles of shoreline in Gulf Stream, Briny Breezes and the southern part of Ocean Ridge.
“We’re quite busy out there,” said monitor Joan Lorne of Delray Beach, whose daughter, Jackie Kingston, founded the nonprofit. “Double the amount of nests. It’s like crazy, which is a good thing.”
The totals for Sea Turtle Adventures in mid-August were 1,051 loggerhead, 283 green, 15 leatherback, one very rare Kemp’s ridley and 1,350 overall. Last year the group counted only 659 nests. “Definitely a record-breaking year,” data manager Emilie Woodrich said.
Delray Beach is also having a “pretty crazy” season, said Joe Scarola, senior scientist with Ecological Associates Inc., which monitors the city’s 3-mile beach. “We’re having a record year for all three species,” he said, with 396 loggerhead nests by Aug. 19 (old record was 356 in 2021), 90 green (vs. 58 in 2019) and 30 leatherback (vs. 21 in 2020).
And in Highland Beach there were 1,526 nests by Aug. 17, surpassing 2022’s total of 1,092 nests, said Joanne Ryan, who holds the FWC sea turtle permit for the town and lives just north of Gulf Stream’s Place Au Soleil neighborhood. The breakdown was 989 loggerhead, 530 green and seven leatherback.
Highland Beach has 2.8 miles of shoreline, making the town “a busy little beach for the turtles,” Ryan said. “I can only attribute it to it being private, and although we do have a fair share of lighting issues, it’s nothing like the public beachfronts, not to mention the people. I feel very lucky to have HB for my nesting survey program.”
Peak of season is past
Nesting season on Florida’s East Coast for the threatened or endangered sea turtles runs from March 1 to Oct. 31.
Anderson said “unfortunately” the loggerheads and the greens will not set species records for Boca Raton along with the new overall record this year. Loggerheads generally stop nesting in late August, he said.
The record high for loggerheads is 1,075 set in 1990, Anderson said, and historical data led him to predict only 1,040 to 1,045 nests this year. The record high for greens in Boca is 393 set in 2019. Anderson expects to hit 337 to 347 this season, “as our last green nest is usually in late September.”
Loggerhead nesting usually peaks in mid-June when Boca Raton gets over 100 nests per week, he said. Green nesting usually peaks in mid-July and his team counts about 30 nests per week.
But even post-peak there is plenty of work for turtle conservationists.
“We have major hatch-outs at this time,” Lorne said.
The county’s northernmost 9.5 miles of beach set records for loggerhead and green nests by mid-August, said Dr. Justin Perrault, vice president of research at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center.
By late August, his team had counted 24,799 nests in all: 15,652 loggerhead, 8,931 green and 216 leatherback. The team tallied 575 nests in just one night, he said.
Most of the discoveries are marked by GPS coordinates but many are also written down. Only those that appear vulnerable to being disturbed are marked.
“Obviously we can’t put 48,000 stakes on the beach,” Perrault said.
Farther north, Disney World’s Vero Beach Resort on July 27 reported that it had found more than 2,000 sea turtle nests on its 5 miles of beach, well above the average 1,500 nests that its conservation team usually sees in a full nesting season.