The turtles are coming. The turtles are coming! Loggerheads and Green Turtles are nearing the end of their long journey from their foraging waters in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to their nesting beaches in northwest Florida. They have passed the males of their species along the way and are now heavy with eggs ready to be laid in a nest near the beach on which they themselves hatched 30 or more years ago. Turtles are amazing navigators. However, the way in which they relocate their natal beach area is still not fully understood. But they do. Another mystery of these mysterious creatures.
But here they are, eager to push themselves on shore to begin their arduous chore of nesting. It takes a lot of time, energy and strength to build their nest, lay their eggs, properly cover them and camouflage their location. Loose, lightly moist sand on a gently rising beach makes this process a bit easier than nesting on a small spit of sand between fallen trees at the edge of the water at mid tide. Yet time and again, on St. Vincent Island, this is the very spot those nesters will choose.
Now it is up to those intrepid souls who “Turtle” on SVI to find that nest between those fallen trees on that little spit of beach. Oh, how those crazy folks love it. They are eager to get up before dawn to catch the barge over to the island and drive a persnickety all-terrain vehicle around those beautiful, isolated, wild beaches and thru challenging wetlands and forests, all in pursuit of The Nest. Oh, and then there is the area of beach that must be walked, no navigated by foot. Fallen trees on the beach make these areas somewhat treacherous. But we love it. No one ever said a Turtler was a normal person.
Finding the nest is only part of the job, the first part. A determination must now be made as to whether the turtle crawl resulted in a nest with eggs, or she abandoned her nesting attempt for some reason. This is done by reading the signs on the sand. Turtles leave certain clues at their nest that will tell a Turtler if eggs are present, or she did not lay and left only a False Crawl.
On St Vincent, feral hogs and ghost crabs can be a problem for turtle nests. Easy to dig up, the hogs find them a nourishing meal and can quickly destroy an entire nest. But the Turtler has a remedy…a cage over the nest that allows the hatchlings to emerge, and the hogs are less able to dig up the nest. However, these cages of heavy wire must be built by hand. This will take a strong hand and lots of time. Calling all Turtlers to help….
By late July, most nests have been laid, so now the wait for hatching to begin. Daily patrols to check each nest continue because all sorts of things can happen during this incubation period. A high tide can drown a nest by robbing it of oxygen. The eggs might be infertile, and no hatchlings will be emerging. Ants or plant roots might surround each egg and kill them. The dangers are many for those little creatures in waiting. In fact, only one hatchling in a 1000 will live the three decades it takes to become a nesting adult.
Months later, a Turtler notices a small caving in the sand above the eggs in the nest. The movements of the hatchlings as they struggle from their egg, or pip, displaces the sand in the nest and causes the settling, or caving, of the sand at the nest top. This is the first sign this nest is about to emerge into a boil of babies making a mad dash to the sea. Most nests hatch under the cover of darkness in order to enhance their chance of survival. There will be fewer birds, crabs or other predators out to eat them at that time. Plus, they can use the reflection of the moon on the water to guide them to the sea.
The day after hatch, our Turtler will find lots of tiny tracks emerging from the nest cavity and making their way toward the water. By closely examining the number and direction of tracks, and where they end, a determination of the number and fate of many of the hatchling may be made. It is a happy day in a Turtler’s life when a large and successful hatch is recorded.
Speaking of recording, this is the other big job of a SVI Turtler, data collection. A lot of information is gathered during the entire nesting process. The date the nest was laid. Notes are taken if it is predated, overtopped by high tides or in standing water are some of the events noted in our field books. If the nest hatches, then the fate of each egg is noted. Most nests have around 75 to 150 eggs. This is all reported to Florida FWC so that trends in the various species of turtles can be tracked in order to enhance conservation practices.
So, this is the job of a Turtler. But what about working conditions? Well, they range from idyllic to worse than the worst. My first ever turtle patrol on SVI was during a very heavy downpour. Yet, on we patrolled because the nests needed us. The day may start out sunny and bright but turn rainy and cold quickly, and you are an hour away from even the most primitive shelter. Hope you remembered your raincoat. Or, the sun may be relentless and blazing hot. Or, that persnickety ATV may decide not to make the 10-mile trip back to the barn. Okay, it’s a walk through the most beautiful forest and wetlands imaginable that are filled with biting insects and snakes. It takes a special person to turtle on St Vincent Island. But it is one of the most rewarding experiences possible…if you are that special type of person known as a “SVI Turtler”.
There is one more player in this game of turtles. These folks are seldom mentioned but are essential to protecting turtles. It is the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage System (STSSS). This is a group of already permitted folks who are additionally trained in the rescue of a stranded or injured turtle. They also examine the remains of dead turtles to determine cause of death. Live turtles on SVI in need of help due to injury or illness are taken to Gulf World at Panama City Beach for treatment and rehabilitation. This is the same group that face the cold winter weather to walk the beaches and wade the waters of St. Joe Bay to rescue turtles suffering from hypothermia.
Well, I have wandered from the shores of St Vincent Island to St Joe Bay and all the surrounding beaches. That’s the life of a turtle, a marine wanderer. But it helps understand the interrelatedness of our local nesting beaches for our turtles. One last program to mention on SVI and other local beaches is the Tagging effort. By attaching a transmitter to a nesting turtle and taking a very small amount of genetic material, researchers are now able to track each female every time she emerges to nest and compare genetic material from each animal as she reappears on a beach to nest again. We are beginning to get very good information on beach fidelity and how the nesters may choose their beach to lay on this year from this effort. This data will become very valuable as researchers learn more of their habits and can plan conservation efforts accordingly. SVI has participated in this program for years and is adding so much information to this data base.
St. Vincent Island is a wonderland of nature. It’s very special natural habitat calls on us to help protect it as we also enjoy the amazing sights it has to offer. Please visit SVI as often as you can and relish the unique little piece of sand that it is. Most of all please practice best beach management practices. Bring your childlike wonder to take in the island’s full beauty. Stay away from posted areas so that the animals may continue to live in peace and procreate. Leave only footprints. Book a seat on St Vincent Island Shuttle Boat and Tours with Joey. Enjoy a guided tour led by Carol and learn even more about the island. Or kayak over to enjoy the quiet solitude of the beach. Any way you do it, it will be an excursion you will not forget.