Sea turtle season is in full effect.
Each morning, volunteers from the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol are out patrolling the beaches of Cape San Blas on a hunt for any sea turtle activity that may have occurred throughout the night.
Currently, the turtle patrol is made up of more than 20 volunteers, clad in matching blue shirts, who start their days at 6 a.m. ET and begin their search with the rising sun. On any given day, 2-3 teams will patrol simultaneously, seven days a week.
Cape residents, Penny Weining and John Ehrman, a husband and wife duo, are just two of those folks who comb a stretch of beach three days a week, covering anywhere from 2-6 miles by foot.
During sea turtle season, which lasts from May 1 through Oct. 31, Ehrman and Weining keep their eyes open for active turtles, new nests, and false crawls, areas where a turtle made it onto the beach and then returned to the water without laying eggs.
The most prominent species of turtles on the Cape are Loggerhead turtles, followed by the more rare Green turtles and occasionally, the rare and endangered Kemp’s Ridley.
This year marks Weining’s eighth season on patrol and Ehrman’s seventh.
Weining, originally from Atlanta, had seen sea turtles at the Marine Aquarium in Clearwater and become fascinated with the species. Ehrman, a New York City native, said he’s always been interested in dinosaurs, and sea turtles, which have been around for millions of years, are the closest he can get to seeing one in the flesh.
The couple relocated to the Cape from Snellville, G.A. in 2007 and quickly got involved in the patrol once construction on their home was complete.
“I’m so amazed by how big the turtles are, and out here, we can interact with them,” said Weining. “There’s something about when you see your first baby turtle. It’s awesome and it’s such a natural process.”
Female turtles crawl onto the beach between dusk and dawn, laying anywhere from 70-120 eggs at one time. They can repeat this process 4-7 times a season. Some turtles only dig down a few inches, while larger sea turtles may dig more than a foot into the beach sand. Regardless of how far down the eggs are, the dip in the sand created by a turtle’s flippers are unmistakable.
A nest will typically take 60-70 days to hatch as long as they aren’t disturbed by predators which may include coyotes, ghost crabs, raccoons and vehicles on the beach.
Whenever a new nest is located, volunteers dig into the sand to find the edges of the egg cluster and cover it with a thin metal screen. To bring attention to the site, patrollers hammer wooden stakes at each corner and mark the nest with caution tape. A tag is applied to notate the date it was laid and the type of turtle the eggs came from.
During the night hours, interns from the University of Florida patrol the beaches and send updates to the Turtle Patrol in the morning, detailing any activity they may have seen. If turtles were spotted in certain areas, those locations are thoroughly combed in the day time for new nests.
“People get really excited when the nests hatch,” said Weining. “We get some big crowds.”
To avoid newly-hatched turtles getting lost on their way to the water, Ehrman and Weining encouraged locals and visitors to keep porch lights off, fill in any holes dug in the sand and remove beach items and debris at the end of the day.
Ehrman said that this season, there have been more than 83 nests and 55 false crawls. He anticipates more than 130 nests before the season is over.
While finding a nest brings the most excitement to patrollers, a false crawl requires an equal amount of paperwork.
Patrollers photograph the site, mark its GPS location and notate nearby roads or homes. These forms not only remind patrollers where to look for nests later, but are also kept on file with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to be analyzed later.
“We want people to be conscious of what they’re doing on the beach and realize that what they do has an impact,” said Ehrman. “It’s about awareness.”
Ehrman and Weining encouraged those who enjoy the area’s ecosystem to become involved in the turtle patrol. Even for those who may not want be available or able to walk the beaches, there are plenty of events where volunteers can provide information to the community or even patrol the waters by kayak in the cooler months when cold-stunned turtles go into a hibernation state and must be spotted and rescued.
“In addition to the turtles, all the volunteers care about the environment,” said Ehrman. “They see this beautiful area we have a there’s a sense of duty to preserve it. It’s our duty to take care of it.”
To build awareness for the turtles, patrollers also participate in various activities around Gulf County to provide information to residents and visitors alike. Pamphlets and info sheets are handed out at many of the events, especially those held at the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve, a local attraction for those staying out on the Cape.
For Ehrman and Weining, they said they feel responsibility to the area and its ecosystem.
“I’m helping to perpetuate the survival of the species,” said Ehrman. “In the big picture, I’m doing what I feel is my part.
“I do what I can so that future generations have the same opportunity to see sea turtles somewhere besides an aquarium.”