2017-07-13 / Top News

HIGH SEASON

Sea turtles are streaming ashore to nest in record numbers

Turtle-nesting season has hit its peak. July will bring an arribada of egg-laying greens, leatherbacks and loggerheads to Palm Beach County’s beaches, pushing the number of subterranean sites along the shore to well beyond 10,000.

“Palm Beach County is the most

densely nested county in Florida,” said Kirt Rusenko, a marine conservationist at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, which has counted more than 575 nests. “I think it’s going to be pretty busy for us.”

That may be the result of nearly four decades of conservation work that includes protecting and monitoring nests and the use of fishing nets that have turtle excluder devices.

Last year, a total of 70,000 nests was surveyed from the Panhandle to the Keys, and 25,000 of them were between Tequesta and the Palm Beach-Martin County line. This year looks to be as fruitful for the fabled fauna.


Researchers from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center excavate hatched nests along the Boca Raton shore. Researchers from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center excavate hatched nests along the Boca Raton shore. “I would expect easily that we would probably double our loggerhead numbers from what we have now,” Mr. Rusenko said. “As for the greens, we’re still counting on them to go up to the 400s.”

The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center monitors five miles of coastline every morning at sunrise. A team of specialists starts out by spotting turtle tracks in the sand — particular patterns denote the species — and then follow the tracks to determine whether a nest resulted or a false crawl occurred. All of the data is entered into hand-held GPS trackers for analysis by the center and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Everything’s been good, except for the leatherbacks,” Mr. Rusenko said.

Leatherbacks, the largest of the three types of turtles at 2,000-plus pounds, nest in lower numbers because fewer of them are in existence. They remain on the endangered list. Loggerheads dominate the season every year but still are on the threatened list. Greens have cyclical habits — one year, their numbers are low and the next year, they explode.


A Loggerhead Marinelife Center researcher records data from a hatched turtle nest. A Loggerhead Marinelife Center researcher records data from a hatched turtle nest. “We think we’re going to get hammered this year,” Mr. Rusenko said of the greens, whose growth has been a trend since the mid-’90s.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently changed the status of the greens to threatened, from endangered.

“Some of us think it might be a little premature,” Mr. Rusenko said. “Their nesting numbers are going up exponentially, so it looks good on paper, but then again, it’s only been 20 years. Is 20 years long enough to decide, long term, what the population is going to do? Biologists tend to be a little on the conservative side when it comes to animals.”


A loggerhead turtle lays eggs at Boca Raton. A loggerhead turtle lays eggs at Boca Raton. Greens are on the rise at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach, where the most recent count of 520-plus nests exceeds the 2016 total of 169, with four months to go.

“It definitely looks like we are having a great year for the greens,” park-services specialist Chandler Keenan said.

Ms. Keenan, accompanied by a park ranger and trained volunteers, has patrolled 1.6 miles of beach daily beginning March 1 and will do so until Oct. 31, the length of the season. Every 20th nest is marked.

“The ones marked are for excavation to learn the productivity of the nest,” Ms. Keenan said.

The park’s Citizen Science program heads the excavation process that entails digging up nests after hatch-outs to count the eggs that hatched, those that did not and babies that pipped, meaning they made it halfway out of the egg.


A researcher from Gumbo Limbo reaches into a hatched nest along the beach at Boca Raton. A researcher from Gumbo Limbo reaches into a hatched nest along the beach at Boca Raton. “All of the work we are doing here is having a very, very real-world impact on how we plan to protect turtles in the future,” Ms. Keenan said. “The FWC uses our information to create management plans, conservation plans, land-acquisition plans, etc., to help recover their global population.”

Citizen Scientists excavated 81 nests in 2016, concluding that 2,340 hatchlings emerged toward the ocean.

“It’s a cool thing to be able to say that this many more sea turtles are in the world, and they originated right here at MacArthur Beach,” Ms. Keenan said.

At the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, staff members, seasonal employees and student interns share the responsibility of surveying a 9½-mile strand for new activity from the previous night. The job can take up to eight hours.

“It can be a long day,” field-operations manager Adrienne McCracken said. “But it’s such a neat job. I love the unpredictableness of it. You don’t really know what is going to happen on any given day.”

One morning, their ATV came across a lumbering loggerhead trapped in a hole left by a beach-goer. The female weighed between 200 and 300 pounds, requiring several pairs of hands to lift it for a safe return to sea.

“If you see holes in the sand, fill them in,” Ms. McCracken said.

Chairs never should be left ashore overnight because they can trap turtles, as well.

“I’ve seen turtles get stuck under all kinds of things — chairs, walkovers, steps, rocks — they get wedged into them — so that definitely is a real issue,” Ms. McCracken said.

Anyone lucky enough to see a nesting turtle should stand back and watch, taking care to not disrupt or interfere with its behavior.

“No. 1 is, if you see a nesting turtle on the beach, just make sure to not approach it so you don’t accidentally startle it,” Ms. McCracken said. “Let it nest. Stay out of its line of sight, and don’t touch it.”

The center has counted more than 8,000 nests and expects another promising year.

“It’s looking like it’s again going to be a very good year for the loggerheads and the green turtles,” Ms. McCracken said. “The leatherbacks are unpredictable. They’re kind of our wild card. But so far, things have been very positive.” ¦

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