Nests will begin showing up mid- to late-May
The turtles are coming, the turtles are coming.
Sea turtle nesting season arrives May 1 and turtle patrol volunteers are urging residents as well as visitors to get ready by dimming the lights and picking up upon leaving the beaches.
“It is time to turn the lights off, to shield the turtles from lights on the beach,” said Jessica Swindall, coordinator of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol, which surveys the peninsula’s six miles of beach from the Stump Hole rock revetment to T.H. Stone Memorial State Park.
“We also want to encourage people to pick their things up off the beach at the end of the day. It is good for the turtles, but also good for public health and pollution,” Swindall added.
The St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol’s non-profit arm, the Florida Coastal Conservancy and its Sea Turtle Center, recently received a boost in the awareness campaign for turtles, specifically the value Leave No Trace to hardbacks.
This the third full season since the county adopted a Leave No Trace ordinance, though there have yet to be funds budgeted for enforcement.
Instead the county has relied on education outreach and the peninsula turtle patrol and its non-profit arm has been instrumental.
Patrol volunteers are on the beaches each morning during the six month turtle season and are beachside residents when not patrolling or surveying.
They are, literally, the first line in protecting the beach and its critters.
Last week, the Florida Coastal Conservancy was awarded a grant of nearly $5,000 to bolster the information and education campaign behind Leave No Trace.
The money flows from the state out of proceeds from the sea turtle specialty license plate and through the Florida Sea Turtle Grants Program.
The grant award came after a competitive process that is open to coastal county governments, educational institutions and Florida-based non-profits working to improve the livelihood of sea turtles and conserve natural habitats.
The goal of the local project is to enhance nesting beach habitat and marine conditions for the hundreds of seas turtles, loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridley and green, which nest on county beaches each year.
Habitat enhancement includes near-shore areas of St. Joseph Bay where juvenile sea turtles thrive in their early life.
“This is all about outreach to facilitate the educational aspect of Leave No Trace,” Swindall said. “In a lot of ways we are an arm of the county, like the citizen support organization supporting the county and Leave No Trace.
“Our volunteers are out there, talking with people, seeing the beach each morning.”
The grant dollars will purchase new and updated road signage urging folks to dim the lights and adhere to Leave No Trace during their beach visit.
In addition to updating the three existing road signs along the peninsula, a fourth will be purchased and erected.
In addition, brochures and magnets speaking to lighting and Leave No Trace will be purchased for distribution by the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, Florida Coastal Conservancy, during the upcoming Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Festival, other local events and placement in rental units.
Ambassador cards will be distributed to youngsters with their pledge to assist in the effort to keep beaches clean.
“(All of it) will include information about how improper lighting, litter and recreational equipment left overnight on the beach can negativelty impact sea turtles,” according to a press release from the Florida Coastal Conservancy.
“The items … will be beneficial in informing residents and visitors about our sea turtle population and how best to enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities in Gulf County without negatively impacting these important animals and their habitat.”
There will also be information on what to do if you encounter a stranded or injured sea turtle.
The grant proposal includes a survey of beachgoers concerning their knowledge of lighting and Leave No Trace information and issues.
“We want to try and understand where folks are getting the information and what information they are getting,” Swindall said.
The sea turtle season, nesting and hatching, continues from May 1 through the end of October.
The beaches, Swindall, who has been surveying them in advance of the season, are “pretty clean, pretty wide” though erosion at the south end of the peninsula is a decided issue in an area sea turtles love.
The first nests typically are found in late May, the third week or so, and from July 1 through October the hatchlings will begin to emerge from their nests.
In each of the past two years, the peninsula beaches have seen well over 200 nests.
And that does not include Indian Pass, St. Vincent Island or St. Joe Beach out to East Bay.