Kathy Doddridge never imagined her first day as an official Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring volunteer would result in finding the island’s first nesting activity.
Doddridge has been involved with AMITW in the past, helping when asked, but on her first walk of the season along Coquina Beach May 2, a clearly visible turtle track appeared on the sand, leading from the Gulf of Mexico, up the beach to a dune, with a turnaround crawl heading back into the water.
It was appropriate that Doddridge was the first to discover a crawl for the 2013 season. Just before last year’s nesting season was disrupted by Tropical Storm Debby, Doddridge’s husband died.
She wanted to become an official AMITW volunteer because she finds the early morning walks on the beaches of AMI healing. She says she has developed a profound connection between the recovery of the beach after the tropical storm and her own journey of healing.
“The beach and I will heal together,” she said. “It also helps being involved with AMITW because they are a nice group of people.”
Fox said she first became involved with the turtle watch organization 30 years ago for similar reasons.
“My mom had just died,” said Fox. “I was looking for something to do to find that kind of healing purpose and I found turtle watch. A lot of things have changed over the years, but one thing that hasn’t is the quality of people who are involved with this organization. It seems this kind of activity draws the kindest and softest people.”
Doddridge said she was incredibly excited to discover the crawl in her section on her first walk as an official volunteer.
According to Fox, the female turtle made her way onto the beach on the night of May 1, the first official day of the nesting season, which runs through the end of October.
“She came in after it stopped raining last night around 8 p.m.,” said Fox. “Because it rained, the crawl is very clear and tells us a lot.”
The nest was determined to be a false crawl, but Fox and AMITW coordinators Lee and Marvin Zerkel wanted to be sure. It was difficult to tell because the turtle climbed up the dune into a patch of thick sea oats.
Marvin checked the grass to see if it had been flattened from the crawl or pulled out by the turtle digging with its hind flippers. He dug down into the area just to be sure, and Fox was confident at that point that it was a false crawl.
“We are going to mark it and check back in 45 days just to be sure,” she said.
Raccoon tracks were scattered throughout the area, but the animals apparently had not attempted to dig into the suspected nest site. Fox said it was another indication that the turtle had returned to the water without laying her eggs.
Raccoons are a problem in the Coquina Beach section of AMI. Two years ago, AMITW began to place cages over nest sites, which has resulted in zero eggs and hatchlings lost to predators.
After a record 2012 nesting season, Fox and her small army of AMITW volunteers have been bracing for another busy season of turtle activity.
Leatherneck season on the east coast of Florida began early, an indication that the loggerhead season also may begin early.
A loggerhead turtle laid her eggs on the shoreline of Longboat Key April 30, and Fox said the season is already underway up and down the Gulf coast.
“We were expecting a big year so there has been a lot of anticipation that we would see some early activity,” said Fox. “We’ve made sure that we have extra equipment this year and I’ve asked my volunteers to plan their vacations differently this year.”
Beach renourishment is expected to begin in late summer and AMITW will need to relocate all nests laid south of 78th Street in Holmes Beach.
Early nests may not have to be moved because they should hatch before work begins on the beach.
Fox said she is already holding meetings with Manatee County engineers to keep them up to date on nesting activity and she’ll be reporting any “hot spots” of nesting activity to the county.
An exact start date for the renourishment project has not been determined, but it is expected to begin in August. Fox said the relocation effort will depend on the start date, but expects any nests due to hatch through July should be able to stay “where the mother put them,” she said.
Best practices for sea turtle nesting season
It is against the law to disturb sea turtles, hatchlings or their nests. Sea turtles are protected by both the Federal Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Protection Act.
• If you see an injured or dead sea turtle, report the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 888-404-FWCC.
• Avoid going to the beach at night during sea turtle nesting season. If you do, avoid using flashlights and never use flash photography.
• If you see a mother turtle coming onshore, give her complete right-of-way. Steer clear of her and remain as far away as possible.
• Residents near the beach are reminded to keep outside lights off, use motion sensors for lighting on walkways and stairs, and shield interior lights by closing drapes and blinds.
• Respect nesting sites that are clearly marked and do not disturb the nesting areas. While cleaning up after your beach visit is always important, it is especially important during nesting season. Pick up your litter and dispose of it properly.
• Do not erect canopies or put stakes in the beach in nesting areas. Remove all beach gear, chairs, canopies and tents before nightfall.
• If you see anyone disturbing a nest or harassing a turtle, contact the FWC immediately.
Islanders also can call AMITW executive director Suzi Fox at 941-778-5638 to report sea turtles in distress.