A turtle patrol volunteer and several lucky visitors had a rare sight last week as July sea turtle nesting got underway.
About 300 yards south of Dunes Drive, Jessica McKenzie, coordinator for the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol, came upon a female loggerhead directly in front of Windward Street on the peninsula.
“She was just digging her egg chamber when I got to her,” McKenzie wrote in an email to volunteers.
In theory, it would not be unusual for a turtle patrol volunteer to find a nesting female turtle.
Save for the time of day – 10:15 a.m. ET.
While observing a female turtle nesting in the daytime is not unique, it is hardly common, said Tom Baird.
Baird is part of the same turtle patrol group which McKenzie coordinates and also writes a bi-monthly column on the outdoors for this newspaper.
“A day nesting turtle is very unusual,” Baird said. “They prefer the dark, the darker the better.”
Hence the variety of local rules and regulations pertaining to limiting lights and noise at night during turtle nesting season found along the Gulf region and coastal Florida.
And that sensitivity to light and noise was underscored, Baird said, during the Fourth of July weekend by the number of false crawls – evidence that turtles have come ashore but did not lay eggs – on the peninsula.
“They were scared away by the noise and lights and fireworks,” Baird said.
The busiest months of nesting are June, July and August, Baird said.
“During those months they are really coming in,” Baird said. “From the last emails I’ve received they are finding four and five nests a day.”
And during those months, he added, it was essential for the health and propagation of the various species that nest on local beaches that visitors and locals enjoying the beach pick up their gear from a day at the beach.
Don’t leave cabanas, tents, grills and other obstacles to the turtles reaching the upper beach.
“Put anything out there you want during the day, but at night pick it all up,” Baird said. “Don’t leave anything over night.”
The same, he added, was true later in the season when hatchlings emerge from the egg chamber looking for the beach.
That the daytime nester was discovered at all was happenstance.
McKenzie was checking another section of the peninsula beach when she realized she was in the wrong section for the given day of the week.
Therefore, covering the area after 10 a.m. ET is unusual – the volunteers are typically out just after dawn checking for tracks and then locating egg chambers.
The patrol then cover and screen the chamber and erect stakes and yellow crime scene tape to mark the nest as off limits.
For McKenzie and about a dozen folks who happened by and stayed a safe distance away, they were gifted a scene few will be fortunate to witness.
“We kept a respectful distance and watched her drop her eggs, cover her nest, then crawl back to the water,” McKenzie wrote in her email. (It was a) very exciting and incredible experience for all.”
Baird noted that the “miracle turtle”, possibly due to the light, had established her egg chamber somewhat out of position, closer to shore which will make it potentially more vulnerable to a storm surge.
The spectators remained in their vehicles and helped guard the next while McKenzie completed her morning patrol of that section.
“It was a great way to start July nesting,” McKenzie wrote.