Despite hurricanes, Florida turtle season hatching well

By Tim Croft / The Port St. Joe Star | 850-227-7827 / @PSJ_Star |

Over 300 turtle nests have been documented to date for the 2019 Florida sea turtle season.

So little is known about sea turtles that let’s avoid delving into the thought processes of those loggerheads, greens, and, yes, even leatherbacks navigating to local beaches this summer.

But here’s just a hunch that the little hardbacks are pretty fatigued with hurricanes.

Nonetheless, despite a landscape altered by one hurricane and deluged by a second, as the 2019 sea turtle nesting season reaches a midpoint, it is shaping up quite, pardon, swimmingly.

Maybe not a record breaker, unless Indian Pass beaches are one’s haunt, but the season, as it shifts focus from nesting to hatching, is one of note beyond the surrounding circumstances.

“We won’t have a record-breaking year, but it has been a successful nesting season so far,” said Jessica Swindall with the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol and its non-profit umbrella the Florida Coastal Conservancy.

“We are still finding nests. It’s been a good year.”

As of Monday, the numbers on the peninsula had reached 190 nests; that compares to 137 last year, though the season is likely to end short of the record 270 or so of several years ago.

“We will get to 200 I think, but we won’t get to that 260 or 270,” Swindall said.

On the beaches of Indian Pass, meanwhile, a record has already been established with 77 turtle nests and counting and St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge is nearing 60 nests.

Given the average loggerhead turtle nest, by far the most abundant on local beaches, will produce 120 eggs, that is roughly 35,000 potential turtles buried beneath county sands.

The beaches of Gulf County have the highest concentration of nesting loggerheads in Northwest Florida.

The peninsula has surveyed two green turtle nests this season; Indian Pass patrol volunteers have recorded one and Gulf and East Bay three.

There have been rough seas, however.

Particularly those from Hurricane Barry last month, with nests on local beaches inundated with by high waves and torrential rain.

“They can take a little bit of water, but they still need air to breath,” Swindall said of turtle eggs in the clutch. “We are not having a great start to hatching season because of Barry.”

On the peninsula, nine nests were swept away and others were soaked, but remain intact; from here it is a wait-and-see whether they produce any live eggs, Swindall said.

Among the nests impacted was the sole leatherback, a relatively unusual site during nesting season in Gulf County.

Eight hatchlings were salvaged and Swindall said after patrol members opened the other 80 eggs the hatchlings appeared near term.

Barbara Eells from the Gulf and East Bay patrol characterized the season as “horrible” due to the loss of nests via inundation and accretion.

On the other hand, the casualties of Barry might have been higher.

Beginning June 1, the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol began relocating the turtle nests found within the southern portion of a beach restoration project set to begin in the coming weeks.

As of Monday, the patrol had relocated 74 nests; of those, over 60 were in the ground as of June 1.

“We probably had more survivors after Barry because of the nests we had already located,” Swindall said.

In Mexico Beach, the Gulf and East Bay folks relocated several nests away from the Mexico Beach berm project currently underway.

Another troubling trend will not be easily tracked or solved.

In a typical season, if beaches yield 130 sea turtle nests, there would be expected to be roughly that many, maybe slightly more, false crawls.

False crawls indicate a nesting turtle has some ashore, her flippers’ tracks in the sand providing the path, but for unknown reasons found the nesting situation not quite to her liking.

She might return, Swindall noted, maybe not.

But this year, the number of false crawls has spiked.

On St. Joseph Peninsula alone, turtle patrol members have documented 235 false crawls as of Monday.

On Indian Pass, while the number of nests is a record, that number is exceeded by the number of false crawls.

“That will be worrisome if those kinds of numbers continue,” Swindall said. “It is a different landscape. We are all trying to navigate it.”

Eells noted that altered landscape with no nests found in Beacon Hill, just a few in St. Joe Beach with most of the nests found within the area from the west end of Mexico Beach to WindMark.

Swindall added that the year has been notable for the level of assistance and outreach from visitors.

The Gulf and East Bay Turtle Patrol last week sent a message on social media to the residents of St. Joe Beach congratulating them on the cleanliness of the beaches, “the cleanest in years.”

Swindall added that while, yes, houses were lost on the peninsula, the level of public presence and assistance with the beaches has been stellar this summer.

“Everybody has been doing a great job,” Swindall said, noting the role of county staff and the Sheriff’s Office in providing education.

“Clean, flat and dark, please, that is what the turtles like and this is the cleanest I’ve seen the beaches in the 10 or 11 years I’ve been here.”

One program aiding that effort is through the Florida Coastal Conservancy and allows visitors, individuals or families, to participate in the daily morning surveys the turtle patrol performs.

“It is wonderful and our best outreach tool,” Swindall said. “They get to see the beaches through our eyes, through the turtle’s eyes and what we do every day.

“It is very popular. I already have people calling wanting to reserve a day for next year.”