‘Like waiting for Christmas’
Even after more than a decade as volunteer coordinator of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol little contains Jessica Swindall’s excitement over the arrival of turtle season.
“It is like waiting for Christmas, I am very excited,” Swindall said of Friday’s arrival of sea turtle nesting season.
“A normal season would also be a nice season which we have not had for a couple of years.”
The most significant impingement in the past two seasons was a beach restoration project; put on hold at the last minute in 2018 due to Hurricane Michael and undertaken in August, during the busy summer months, in 2019.
As a result, the turtle patrol volunteers were forced the past two years to establish a kind of “nursery” north of Billy Joe Rish State Park where they relocated nests found within the beach restoration project boundaries.
Of 198 nests surveyed on the peninsula last year, 76 were nests relocated from the southern end of the peninsula.
(A note: the actual number of nests surveyed and evaluated, those whose egg chambers are examined, was 173, so it is likely 25 nests on the peninsula washed away due to storms).
This year, the restoration project is in the rearview mirror and last week the county was having the restored beach area raked to “aerate” and fluff the sand, making it more conducive to nesting sea turtles.
“In general, with a restoration project you have to do that kind of tilling,” Swindall said. “This year it will be nice and easy and back to normal.
“We have a wide, nice beach.”
Preparation on other fronts consists of ensuring the roster of volunteers as well as collecting the necessary supplies for their early-morning surveys.
Swindall said she was fortunate this year that the roster of volunteers is unchanged, no newcomers in need of the kind of intensive beginning training that is difficult during a pandemic and social distancing.
“Even on our surveys, social distancing will be something we will stress,” Swindall said.
All volunteers still undertake a refresher training course.
All signs point to an early nesting season, Swindall said.
During typical seasons the first nests are discovered by the middle of May, but she said Northeast Florida beaches had already been visited by the first nesting loggerhead.
The pandemic might actually aid nesting turtles as it will reduce the amount of interaction with humans and, most especially, their belongings.
“If it continues and the beaches stay closed, turtles would have the whole place to themselves,” Swindall said. “They wouldn’t have to worry about running into any objects.
“It would certainly limit that human-turtle interaction.”
The 2019 season, the season after Michael, turned into a “pretty good overall” year despite challenges.
As stated, there were 198 nests along the peninsula’s six miles and 83 found by the Indian Pass Sea Turtle Patrol.
And those nests produced viable hatchlings at a 65 percent success rate on the peninsula; the percentage of eggs that hatch during a typical season is in the 50th percentile.
Each of the past two years the hatch success rate has been 65 percent.
“I would attribute that to the relocation of nests for the beach restoration,” Swindall said.
Life for those hatchlings will be difficult from the start, in any case.
Just one out of 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.
For Swindall and Janna Rinehart and Barbara Eells and the turtle patrol volunteers they lead, those numbers won’t make Friday feel any less like Christmas.