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Date of Issue: September 20, 2007

Rescued hatchlings released to the sea

hb-bridge.jpg
The crowd forms a semi-circle on the shore at Coquina Beach to watch the release of hatchling sea turtles. Applause, as is routine, came when the last turtle swam into the Gulf of Mexico.

A crowd of well wishers gathered Sept. 10 to wave goodbye to about 150 baby loggerhead sea turtles rescued from raccoons and released in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Oh, I just never get tired of this,” said Islander Lucille Claybourne.

The hatchlings, tiny, dark spots on the wet sand, crawled to the sea,

One observer said, “They look like charcoal.”

“I can hardly see them, except for the movement,” another said.

Night had fallen on Sept. 10. The shadows were gone. The only light on the sand at Coquina Beach near 10th Street South came from the stars and moon filtered through a mass of clouds, but for an occasional headlight in the parking lot and an occasional infra-red light flashing on top of a camera.

The crowd that formed to watch the release of the hatchlings grew from about six people at 7:30 p.m. to as many as 50 people by 8:15 p.m.

The first people to arrive anxiously paced along the water. Little was left of the sunlight.

“This was No. 1 on our list of ‘must do’ stuff,” said Maine vacationer Sally Hat. “New England has certain coastal traditions and we wanted to experience this Florida tradition.”

Through the summer, female loggerhead sea turtles return to their Island nesting ground to lay eggs, as many as 100 to a nest. Some 60 days after a nest is made, the eggs hatch and the young bubble through the sandy pit and crawl to the Gulf.

A group of vacationers from southern California arrived. They heard chatter about a “turtle release” at Cafe on the Beach restaurant earlier in the day. When a release is to take place, a buzz goes up and down the Island, mostly along the beach.

“My son just is going crazy to see it,” said Louis Smith, as several Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch leaders walked across Gulf Drive carrying white plastic buckets.

The buckets contained the baby turtles — about 150 hatchlings, many of them collected after raccoons had ripped open the hatchlings’ shells. Raccoons, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, destroy tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs in the state each year, digging up and destroying more than 75 percent of the nests on some beaches.

There’s a history of raccoons disturbing the nests at Coquina Beach, though they aren’t nearly as destructive as elsewhere in the state, according to Turtle Watch.

During the release last Monday, Turtle Watch executive director Suzi Fox asked the audience to turn off the flashes on their cameras, because the artificial light can disorient the turtles.

She then asked the crowd to form a semi-circle, creating an open area at the water’s edge for the hatchlings to crawl into the Gulf.

Fox and others with Turtle Watch, which monitors sea turtle nesting on the Island from May through October, gently tipped the buckets and coaxed the hatchlings to the sand.

“They need to walk on this west coast sand,” Fox said.

The observers kept quiet as turtles made tracks toward the Gulf waters. When the last caught a wave that pulled it into the Gulf, cheers and applause rippled through the crowd.

“It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said a teary-eyed Amee Cassidy of Chicago.

Nesting, by the numbers

As of Sept. 16, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch had counted 141 sea turtle nests. AMITW also reported 7,123 hatchlings emerged from 99 nests.

Turtle nesting season, which began May 1, ends when the last nest hatches, or about Oct. 31.

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