Green turtles hatch, end record year

If a Hollywood screenwriter was tasked to script the 2012 sea turtle nesting season on Anna Maria Island, the storyline wouldn’t have turned out more appropriate than what occurred Dec. 7 to signal an end to a remarkable nesting season.

About 20 endangered green sea turtles broke free from the last known sea turtle nest to exist in the state, but about 40 of the hatchlings required human assistance.

Half of them were rescued following the initial hatching and the remainder of the turtles were dug out by hand Dec. 7 just before sunset in Anna Maria on the beach near North Shore Drive. The nest was laid within the root system of a tree, which complicated the hatching process.

The turtles incubated for 83 days, something Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring volunteer Glenn Wiseman had never seen in his 15 years with AMITW.

“I’ve never seen a nest take this long to hatch, but they have been known to go as long as 90 days,” he said. “But for us, it’s unusual because the average incubation period is about 55 days.”

He said he was worried about the nest, so he sought and received permission from the state to take a peek.

“I dug down to the first layer of eggs and I saw a little head looking back at me,” he said. “I wasn’t worried anymore and knew the nest was about to hatch, and it did that night.”

Wiseman believes the onset of cooler weather over the past few weeks slowed down the incubation.

“It’s all temperature sensitive,” he said.

There have been only four confirmed green sea turtle nests on Anna Maria Island shores in the last 30 years, according to AMITW executive director Suzi Fox.

“We have had about 4,000 loggerhead nests in the last 30 years, but only four green turtle nests,” she said. “The first was around 2000. We had one last year and two this year.”

The release of about 40 green hatchlings to the Gulf was an appropriate end to a record season that saw 12,723 sea turtle hatchlings make it to the water from island beaches. In 2011, there were 7,806 hatchlings, while the 15-year average is 8,940.

There were a total of 362 nests this year. In 2011, there were 183 while the 15-year average is 155.

It was an incredible year of ups and downs for sea turtle nesting, “but ended with more ups,” said Wiseman.

Tropical Storm Debby, in June, was thought to have decimated this year’s nesting season, but about half of the total nests were laid after Debby.

“This has been the best year we’ve ever had,” said Fox. “Our volunteers are a big part of that. They really had to step it up and worked their butts off during a season that was three times as busy as we normally are.”

Fox said another important part of the year’s success is the incredible support she receives from the community.

“We have about 80 official volunteers, but we have a whole other army of non-official volunteers,” she said. “During the season I would get about five phone calls a day from people living near nests just letting me know that ‘their’ nest was OK. The people have really taken ownership and have come to understand that by helping, they are doing something good. They really get that.”

Wiseman said visitors to the island have been equally supportive. He spearheads a weekly turtle walk during season to educate people on sea turtle nesting.

“It used to be we would just show up and take whoever else showed up on the walk,” he said. “Now, we have to take reservations. People schedule their vacations around these turtle walks.”

He said there was a couple from Arizona who were in their 80s and came to the island just for the turtle walk. They arrived and were unable to find a room, so the couple slept in their car overnight to make sure they did not miss the walk.

Fox said the Dec. 7 hatching of a green sea turtle nest would have never happened had it not been for the late Dr. Archie Carr, who in the 1980s almost single handedly led the effort to pull the green sea turtle back from the brink of extinction.

And we can roll the film again in May 2013, near Mother’s Day, when sea turtle nesting season begins anew on Anna Maria Island.

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