In August 2013, Pensacola Beach had twenty sea turtle nests on its beach this season, its highest recorded number. It hosted 19 nests twice, in 1997 and in 2012. The Park has 40 turtle nests this year, which Nicholas says is a little above-average. Turtles continue to nest, so these numbers may increase. Mark Nicholas is District Biologist at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
“We actually have volunteers or staff at every nest that hatches. They are actively managed. We have to basically interfere when the hatchlings come out of the nest, out of the sand. If they start to proceed toward the artificial lights, we have to round them all up, get them lower on the beach,” Nicholas said.
The volunteer patrols search for turtles that nest at night. Nicholas says that when he and the volunteers expect the nests to hatch, they begin to monitor them. They put a towel on the ground and listen for the sound of turtles digging in the sand.
“When you put your ear down, you can hear them very easily, digging en masse,” Nicholas said. “The higher they get up – the closer to the surface – the louder it is, so that indicates to us that, probably tonight or tomorrow night. So then we can plan to have more people lined out to be here, to make sure we get them in the Gulf of Mexico.”
They wait seventy two hours after a nest begins to hatch to conduct a nest assessment, to check on the fate of the eggs. The hatchlings dig cooperatively in order to leave the nest.
“So they get out of their eggs, and they’re kinda curved up from being in that egg, so it takes them a day or so to flatten out. And they’re all underground in a little cavern. And they basically get the roof to collapse, and the sand falls down to the bottom, and they rise up like an elevator in a more or less like a ball,” Nicholas said.
Sea turtle nesting season lasts from May through the middle of August. Most of the nesting occurs in late June and early July. Nicholas says the incubation rates drop as the summer goes on, from sixty days to fifty days. The phase of the moon at the time of hatching can also affect the success rate of the nest. A full moon can overpower artificial lights, but they stand out in the darkness under the new moon.
“Rather than going to the Gulf of Mexico, they end up on the road, they’ll get run over on the road. They’ll end up back further in the dunes, and either the raccoons, or ghost crabs kinda pick ‘em off,” Nicholas said.
There were 117 eggs in this nest, and fifteen live hatchlings that had not yet made it to the Gulf. Nicholas placed the disoriented hatchlings inside a large cooler. They scraped around the layer of sand at the bottom and attempted to climb the walls. They know to follow the brightest light source, and when they find themselves in water, to orient themselves into the waves.
“And that takes them off shore. That’s really all they know,” Nicholas said. “And they know to do it as fast as possible, or they’re gonna get predated. Right now they’re in a cooler, they’re just looking for a way out. And we’ll get ‘em out, but we wanna wait for it to get dark so that they have a little bit better of a chance.”
After the sunset, Nicholas and the volunteer carried the cooler over the berm a few feat from the breaking waves, and placed the turtles onto the sand. Upon entering the water, the sea turtles will swim towards the sargassum mats, where they find food and cover, to avoid predation from birds and fish.
“We can usually get them in,” Nicholas said. “It’s a battle sometimes, if the surf is really high and big, it’ll push them right back up on the beach, and they’ll turn right around and head to the north. But if we can get them into the water, and get them moving offshore, they’ll orient into those waves, and then they disappear out there.”
Katya Ivanov, WUWF News