By Larry Keller
South Florida beach closures because of the coronavirus pandemic may have annoyed some people, but if sea turtles could talk, they likely wouldn’t complain.
The turtles’ nesting season along South County beaches is off to a strong start, and false crawls — incidents where turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs but turn back without doing so — are down.
“So far this has been a very busy and successful season,” said David Anderson, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center’s sea turtle conservation coordinator. He oversees monitoring of sea turtle activity over 5 miles of Boca Raton beach.
False crawls can occur when turtles are disturbed by things like bonfires, flashlights, cellphone lights and beach furniture. With beaches closed for several weeks, those impediments all but vanished.
This season began with a success ratio of up to six nests to every four false crawls. That is a significant improvement from previous years, where the ratio was the reverse. Anderson said the ratio has dropped lately, with false crawls now exceeding the number of nests since people have been back on the beach.
It has been a similar story in Delray Beach. Last year, there were 290 nests and 538 false crawls, said Joseph Scarola, senior scientist at Ecological Associates Inc., which monitors nests on the 3-mile beach for the city. That’s a ratio of 65% to 35%, false crawls to nests. As of mid-June, Delray Beach recorded 170 nests and 180 false crawls — a ratio similar to that of Boca Raton at the time.
Impact of closings uncertain
Nobody can say for sure if closed beaches resulted in the reduction in false crawls or the robust number of nests so far.
Jackie Kingston, president and founder of Sea Turtle Adventures, is skeptical. Her organization monitors a 3-mile expanse of beaches in Gulf Stream, Briny Breezes and part of Ocean Ridge and has noticed fewer false crawls this year.
But, Kingston said, turtles “nest where they want to nest.”
In Highland Beach, there have been about 50% more nests than last year at this time, and fewer false crawls, said Barbara James, the marine turtle permit holder there. Since the beach has no public access, she said she couldn’t attribute this to fewer people being on the beach.
Sea turtle nesting season is March 1 to Oct. 31, although small numbers of nests are dug before and beyond those dates. The first nest discovered this year in Boca Raton was on Feb. 23. It was a leatherback.
That was less than a week before a nourishment project began with beach bulldozers widening the northern 1.5 miles of Boca Raton’s beach from 50 to 250 feet. One early nest was moved to an unaffected area. The first loggerhead in Boca Raton was spotted on April 21, just after the beach nourishment project was finished.
“It went really fast, was really successful,” Anderson said.
Green turtles could be most affected by the wider beach. “Greens are notorious for nesting in the dunes,” Anderson said. Now “it’s a long crawl, but it doesn’t seem to matter to turtles.”
Green turtles have alternating high and low seasons. Last year, a record 393 nests were spotted, but there were only 19 the year before that. This season, 35 had already turned up by June 29. They usually continue to come ashore through September.
All local species are ‘listed’
Five sea turtle species nest on Florida beaches. All are listed as either endangered or threatened.
Only loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks typically deposit eggs in South County, and very few of the latter, which are the largest of the species, sometimes weighing 1,500 pounds or more.
By late June only 13 nests of leatherbacks had been discovered this year on Boca Raton’s beach. They usually finish nesting before June. Still, it’s no cause for concern. Only 18 leatherback nests were found in each of the past two years.
Boca Raton’s modest numbers were more than offset elsewhere. Delray Beach recorded 21 leatherback nests, surpassing last year’s record of 15, Scarola said.
And 20 leatherback nests were found on the beaches that have been surveyed by Kingston’s group for 21 years. That too was a record, topping the previous high of 16 in 2009, she said.
Leatherback nests are more common to the north. There were 397 nests for all of Palm Beach County, and 380 in Martin County in 2019, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That was 70% of all leatherback nests statewide.
There have been more nests overall so far this year on the beaches Kingston monitors. They include about 400 loggerhead nests, well above the total for the same time last year, she said.
“I think it will be a pretty good year,” Kingston said.
It’s been a banner year for loggerhead nests in Boca Raton too. There were 495 by June 29, putting that beach on track for a strong season, Anderson said.