Turtles Flipped Over County Beaches This Year!

There is a reason that so much work, so much passion, so much energy is expended by volunteers each turtle nesting season.

There is a reason that so much work, so much passion, so much energy is expended by volunteers each turtle nesting season.

The odds for each one of those little hatchling that emerge from nests for the perilous jaunt to the ocean are long, very long, indeed.

As in, just 1 in 1,000 will live to be an adult.

“It is tough for them, especially when they are small,” said Jessica Swindall, volunteer coordinator for the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol.

“Getting off the beach and then you have predators. For them to live until adulthood, which is about 20 years old, is a feat.”

Those statistics, naturally, lend a bracing bit of cold water when considering census numbers for any given turtle season.

The 2017 season ended this week but whatever brace comes from lifetime odds can not douse memories of another good season on local beaches; the peninsula beaches, in particular, see the highest concentration of nesting loggerheads in Northwest Florida.

It was a season that turned out well despite storms which impacted nesting in May and hatchlings over the past two months.

On the roughly six miles of St. Joseph Peninsula, 206 nests were reported this year, with 201 of those laid by loggerhead turtles with five green turtle nests.

On Indian Pass, they also reported the arrival of a few green sea turtles, smaller and much rarer than loggerheads.

“We have found that for some reason we see the green turtles in odd-numbered years,” Swindall said. “I don’t know why, but they do tend to run in that kind of cycle.

“We didn’t see any last year and we probably won’t next year. It is just the way it is.”

On Indian Pass, 80 nests were discovered and protected, producing 7,146 eggs, 4,051 of which hatched.

That hatch rate is about 56-57 percent, slightly above average for the area,

“It’s been a good year,” said Janna Rinehart, the permit holder for the Indian Pass Turtle Patrol. “We have steadily grown in the number of nests.

“We even had some green sea turtle nests and we are pretty pleased with that.”

On St. Joseph Peninsula, while the number of nests dipped from last year, from 272 to 206, the hatch rate improved.

Storms impacted the total number of nests on the peninsula, which saw 17 nests washed away by impacts from Hurricane Cindy in the spring and 17 more destroyed by the impacts of Hurricane Nate last month.

Those losses were less than last year, when 67 nests were lost to impacts from Hurricane Hermine, but still carved into the total.

The 206 nests that remained this season produced 14,071 eggs of which 8,982 hatched, a hatch rate of 60 percent.

“We are usually at 54-55 percent, so while we had fewer nests we did pretty well on hatch-rate,” Swindall said.

“It was a really good season. The timing of the storms was not that bad and we didn’t see the predation, especially from coyotes, that we have in recent years.”

Again, on the sobering side, those numbers mean that Indian Pass may expect that four turtles hatched this season will return in 20-30 years to the same shores to nest.

The number on the peninsula would be eight or nine adult females may return to the peninsula to lay eggs.

That survival rate provides perfect foundation for the effort expended to protect and maintain the population each year.

The 2017 season was also aided by Leave No Trace, turtle patrol folks indicated.

Swindall said before the season this would be a critical year for Leave No Trace, for which the county has adopted an educational approach the past two years.

That education seemed to find purchase this year.

Rinehart reported that Indian Pass had just one significant incident pertaining to Leave No Trace all season, with the county intervening and quickly resolving the issue.

“Leave No Trace is showing a lot of positive results in Indian Pass,” she added.

Swindall said other than one nest from which hatchlings were a bit challenged by beach objects, the beaches were remarkably hurdle-free for turtles.

“It was clean, dark and flat and we very grateful for that,” Swindall said.

The education has not only emanated from Leave No Trace, but also the everyday activity of turtle patrol volunteers.

The St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol’s social media pages are dotted with photos of folks, visitors and locals alike, who joined the volunteer effort to protect the turtles.

They don’t even need to speak English, Swindall said of a couple from Italy, to comprehend turtle-talk.

The peninsula turtle patrol has a “Walk Along” program in which people can get in touch in advance and arrange to accompany patrol volunteers on their early-morning surveys.

And, other times, Swindall said, folks see the volunteers on the beach and join the fun.

On average, Swindall said, folks have tagged along six out of every seven days during the season.

“It is probably our most valuable outreach tool,” Swindall said. “People can see it live, for themselves.

“The walk along program is really building momentum.”

As are the turtle numbers, which are best examined not year-to-year, but longer-term, decade-to-decade.

So little is understood about turtles and their lives that trends are best fashioned from a distance.

“You have to look at longer trends,” Swindall said. “What we want to see is that overall the numbers are greater and we are seeing that.”