Turtle watch closes in on record-breaking season

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With a tracking device atop the female sea turtle’s carapace, the more than 300-pound loggerhead Eliza Ann makes her way June 20 from her nesting activity back to the Gulf of Mexico. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
Suzi Fox, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director, leads an educational “Turtle Talk” June 5 at CrossPointe Fellowship, Holmes Beach.
Turtle watch volunteer Annie Camp shows people a loggerhead egg Aug. 9 during a nest excavation on the beach in Holmes Beach.
Sea turtle nests — and a sea of umbrellas — line the beach July 6 in Holmes Beach during peak loggerhead nesting season on Anna Maria Island.
The sun casts a glow Aug. 9 on a loggerhead hatchling as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from its nest in Holmes Beach.

And the cycle continues.

Another record-breaking season for Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring will wrap-up Oct. 31.

More sea turtle nests — 488 loggerhead nests and five green sea turtle nests — were laid as of Oct. 19 on Anna Maria Island beaches than any previous year on record.

With AMITW’s help, more than 25,000 hatchlings found their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

During sea turtle nesting-hatching season, May 1-Oct. 31, sea turtles — mostly loggerheads on Anna Maria Island — return to the beach of their origin to lay their eggs. Following a six- to eight-week incubation period, tiny hatchlings emerge from nests on the shore — usually at night — and follow the reflection of the moon and stars on the surface of the water to the Gulf of Mexico.

On May 1, a team of AMITW volunteers embarked upon their first sunrise beach survey of this season. Volunteers — 88 total — are responsible for walking a mile stretch of shoreline one day a week after dawn breaks to look for new nests and, later in the season, to look for signs of hatched nests.

When a nest is discovered, it is staked off for protection from predators and people, and so AMITW volunteers can collect data.

The first nests of the season were spotted May 12 — one in Anna Maria, another in Bradenton Beach and two in Holmes Beach.

Within two weeks, 60 more nests were validated on island beaches.

By July 2, there were 347 nests nestled in clutches on the island shoreline.

Some of the first hatchlings of sea turtle season on Anna Maria Island emerged early morning July 15 near Avenue F in Holmes Beach.

Upon emergence from the nest, the majority of the medallion-size hatchlings progressed to the water. However, several hatchlings disoriented and crawled toward the dunes. They were found and released to walk the sand to the water.

The hatchlings imprint on the beach is an important part of the process.

Upon hatching, a sea turtle is guided by instinct to the reflection of the moon and stars on the Gulf waters but, in some cases, lights visible from the shoreline can disorient hatchlings.

Disorientations were an issue this season in Holmes Beach. Located at the center of the island, Holmes Beach had the most nests of the three island municipalities and also has more people.

While the likelihood of disorientations increases with more nests, the ratio was not proportionate, according to AMITW executive director Suzi Fox.

Throughout the rest of season, Fox worked with code enforcement in Holmes Beach to remedy problems by bringing lights into compliance with sea turtle regulations and educating people on the beaches.

Additionally, with season’s end, Fox will evaluate data to determine how to keep the problem from recurring next year.

During the year, Fox and her team of volunteers educate the public about the importance of turtle-friendly lighting — low and shielded — and closing blinds and curtains at night in beachfront units.

AMITW creates handouts, including door-hangers and leaflets, and distributes them to the public at informational “Turtle Talks.”

People also are invited to some nest excavations throughout the hatching portion of season. AMITW volunteers conduct excavations — dig into hatched nests — 72 hours after hatching to collect data that is shared with county, state and federal agencies. Turtle watch volunteers count the number of hatched and unhatched eggs, and any live hatchlings in the nest are released to the Gulf.

Throughout July, hatch rates increased, while new nesting activity started tapering off.

On July 23, AMITW “stat guy” Pete Gross reported 437 nests on the island, “an all-time record for number of nests on AMI for any one season.”

Also, as of July 23, 27 nests had hatched, 394 nests remained viable and approximately 1,697 hatchlings had made their way to the sea.

On July 31, Tropical Storm Emily staged a sneak attack from the Gulf of Mexico, forming just offshore overnight and making landfall on Anna Maria Island.

As the storm pushed ashore and northeast across Florida, downpours, high winds and rough surf pounded the island’s beaches — and washed over some sea turtle nests.

AMITW counted 376 unhatched nests before Emily, many in the dunes above the high tide line, that were unaffected by the storm.

Fox said AMITW estimated it lost stakes for 28 nests, mostly from Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach.

By Aug. 28, 207 nests had hatched, 173 remained unhatched and approximately 14,997 hatchlings had emerged from their nests.

The next big storm event affecting AMI — Hurricane Irma — passed AMI overnight Sept. 10-11.

Irma — a Category 2 storm when it skirted the island — produced strong winds, but minimal flooding and no storm surge. As of Sept. 17, AMITW reported 319 hatched nests and 37 nests remaining to hatch on the island. Fox said 22 nests were lost to Irma.

Hatch rates diminished late September and early October. According to Fox, this is normal for the end of season, when nesting females are depositing mostly unfertilized eggs to prepare for migration.

As of Oct. 22, no nests remained on the island.

“We’ve had another incredible year,” Fox said. “People working together as a team — volunteers, residents, businesses and visitors — is vital to saving our turtles. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

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


Eliza Ann races to finish line, takes 2nd place
When loggerhead nesting season peaked mid-June, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring partnered with the Sea Turtle Conservancy in its Tour de Turtles, a program to tag and release a nesting female loggerhead for migration data.

The chosen sea turtle was named Eliza Ann for AMITW’s race sponsor, the Eliza Ann Restaurant at Waterline Resort and Marina in Holmes Beach — was held overnight and tagged with a satellite tracker June 19. She was released early June 20 from the nesting site at Coquina Beach.

The tracking device showed the Sea Turtle Conservancy and AMITW that Eliza Ann came ashore four times, nesting three times during the season, which runs through Oct. 31.

This was the first confirmation for AMITW of multiple nesting by a mature female loggerhead on Anna Maria Island.

As of Oct. 19, Eliza Ann had traveled 1,580 miles and was in second place in the marathon, which tracks distance covered through Nov. 1 by the tagged sea turtles.

Turtle watch participated in the tour in 2015 with a loggerhead named Amie, but the turtle’s tracker fell off not long after she began her migration.

“This is the first time that we have positive proof of multiple nests laid by one girl, all on the west coast,” said Suzi Fox, AMITW executive director. “We are over-the-moon excited.”

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