One sea turtle arriving over the weekend apparently had some issues with time and space.
But it made for quite the Mother’s Day surprise for some hardy beachcombers along St. Joseph Peninsula during a rainy, windy afternoon.
Mid-afternoon, just after 3 p.m. or so, they observed a turtle nesting on the beach, just north of Dunes Drive.
Now, already they had a less-than-normal tale to tell because turtles nest at night, hence warnings about keeping lights low and sand flat at the beach and the like.
“We were lucky because it was unusual because they normally nest at night,” said Jessica Swindall with the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol. “We were called pretty quick and responded.”
Upon arrival, Swindall and her fellow volunteers discovered an even more unusual aspect to this turtle and its daylight egg-dropping antics.
This was not a loggerhead; St. Joseph Peninsula each year has the highest density of nesting loggerhead turtles in Northwest Florida.
Overwhelmingly, the turtles that nest and the hatchlings they produce each year in Gulf County are loggerheads.
Nor, was this a green sea turtle, which in odd number years tend to nest in very small numbers on local beaches; this is 2019 so green turtles should arrive this year.
No, this turtle was a leatherback, not only classified as a more endangered species than loggerheads or green turtles, but also unknown to have nested in Gulf County at all.
“They may have had one in the state park in the 1990s and they are documented findings in Bay County and Franklin County but those are almost legends,” Swindall said. “This is the first one I am aware to nest on the peninsula.
“Never did I dream when we went out there we would find a leatherback. Usually, in the daytime, it is false crawl of something like that. But a leatherback; it was very exciting.”
Leatherbacks are the only sea turtle which does not have a hard shell, or carapace.
Instead, they have a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin fortified by thousands of tiny bone plates that make the shell’s surface appear “leathery,” according to the organization Conserve Turtles.
They are also the most traveled of all sea turtles, found across the globe from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean.
Given its more streamlined body shape and powerful front flippers (we will return to those), leatherbacks can swim thousands of miles of open ocean.
“They can also dive and get into colder water,” Swindall said.
However, according to Conserve Turtles, of known nesting sites around the world none are in Florida.
And, the leatherback is significantly larger than its sea turtle brethren.
Loggerheads average 2.5 to 3.5 feet in length and can range from 155 to 375 pounds.
Green turtles are a might larger, averaging 3-4 feet in length and weighing on average 240 to 420 pounds, according to Conserve Turtles.
An adult leatherback, in comparison, will average 4-6 feet in length (the longest recorded was nearly 10 feet) and weigh 660 to 1,100 pounds.
In case of the crawl, the tracks of the turtle’s flippers as it makes it way to nest and back to the water, a typical loggerhead crawl is about 36 inches, Swindall said.
The crawl of the leatherback discovered Sunday (recall those powerful flippers) was 77 inches, more than twice as wide.
“The turtle crawl was huge,” Swindall said. “It was like a car was driving out of the water. The clutch site is also bigger than a loggerhead.”
Fortunately for turtle patrol volunteers, and mom, there were walkers on the beach that observed the turtle and called authorities, all while keeping a safe distance.
“They stayed away from the turtle which was good,” Swindall said. “They were very considerate.
“And we were lucky they took photos and video so we knew where the turtle nested, which was good because she had camouflaged it really well.”
The leatherback clutch will include up to 110 eggs, about average for the sea turtles that nest locally.
Further, leatherbacks will typically nest multiple times in a season, so Swindall said volunteers will be on the lookout after 9-13 days to see if the turtle returns.
Anyone observing a turtle nesting, particularly a leatherback, is encouraged to call or text Swindall at 205-910-4717, email firstname.lastname@example.org or post a message on the Facebook page of the Florida Coastal Conservancy or Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center.
The leatherneck was the fourth turtle nest documented along St. Joseph Peninsula since the May 1 opening of turtle nesting season.
Sometime around the first of next month, the peninsula turtle patrol will initiate relocation of turtle nests from within the construction zone of a restoration project scheduled for August.
Swindall said that relocation work will continue the remainder of the year.