Sea turtle season crawling to a close

There’s a season on Anna Maria Island’s beaches that recurs every year.

It has for millennia.

It is sea turtle nesting season.

Mid-way into October this year, Suzi Fox, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director, is saying, “This is just the icing on the cake of a wonderful season.”

The 2017 sea turtle season on the island peaked with 488 nests, beating last year’s record by 53 nests.

As of Oct. 8, eight nests remain on the island.

From May-October, mature female loggerhead sea turtles emerge from the Gulf of Mexico to lay eggs and within a few hours, return to the water.

About 60 days after a nest is laid, a spume of hatchlings — sometimes more than a hundred — erupts from the clutch in the sand and proceeds to the Gulf.

The male turtles never come back ashore, while the females will return when they reach sexual maturity — in about 30 years — to lay nests on or near the beaches where they hatched.

During season, turtle watch volunteers walk a designated mile on the 7-mile stretch of island beach each morning just after sunrise, looking for signs of nesting activity and, starting about 60 days into the season, for hatched nests.

When nests are discovered, AMITW volunteers stake and mark them for protection and data collection purposes.

Hatched nests are indicated by a hole with tiny tracks moving away, usually toward the Gulf of Mexico. When volunteers spot a hatched nest, the hatch date is noted as part of the data AMITW shares with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Following a 72-hour wait period, AMITW volunteers excavate the nest to collect more data.

An excavation entails digging into the hatched nest to count how many eggs hatched, didn’t hatch, or if dead or live hatchlings remained in the nest.

Live hatchlings usually are released when found. If a hatchling appears weak or injured, it is taken for rehab to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Many of the nests that hatched following Hurricane Irma’s passage Sept. 10-11 contained an above average number of unhatched eggs.

Ian and Joyce Griffin, of the United Kingdom, have been visiting the island for 15 years and are supporters of AMITW. When walking the beach near Newton Lane in Anna

Maria Sept. 29, they discovered hatchling tracks and notified Fox.

“We knew what we were looking for,” Ian Griffin said Oct. 3.

Upon excavation of the Newton Lane nest Oct. 3, AMITW found 28 hatched and 58 unhatched eggs.

While recent low hatch rates might appear to be the result of the storm, Fox thinks otherwise.

According to Fox, flooding from Irma was not excessive, and it is normal for nests at the end of season to hold unfertilized eggs.

“The end of season is housekeeping time for the mature females,” Fox said. “All of the unfertilized eggs need to be flushed out of their systems before they continue on their journeys.”

Fox said as season winds down, volunteers must “stay on their toes” to make sure they catch nests as they hatch.

She said sometimes hatches are missed — the small tracks, which are few and far between at this point in season, can be obscured by beach conditions, rain, wind and tide.

However, according to Fox, the dwindling hatch has not diminished the enthusiasm of turtle watch volunteers.

She said the cooler mornings and quieter beaches are “a pleasure” for the volunteers, who must work through the hottest part of summer.

For more information about AMITW, contact Fox at suzilfox@gmail.com or 941-778-5638.

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