Turtles Have a Stellar Year!

Posted Nov 7, 2019 at 12:01 AM

There was a bit of concern among the local turtle patrols about the impacts Hurricane Michael had on the landscape.

Turtles, though one of the most mysterious of marine animals, are known to be a tad persnickety about where exactly to place their eggs come nesting season, so the damage to dunes from Michael was a worry.

Let us now lay those worries aside as dozens, maybe hundreds, of turtles laid thousands of eggs, according to the numbers tallied thus far.

Of course, a female loggerhead turtle, the most common nesting on local beaches, will nest three to seven times a season.

So the 198 nests on St. Joseph Peninsula or the 83 found within the area patrolled by the Indian Pass Sea Turtle Patrol do not reflect the total number of turtles that arrived on local beaches between May and the season’s close with November.

But they sure represent a pretty busy season.

“It was surprising to see the amount of nesting we did given the changes in the landscape and all that was going on on the beaches,” said Jessica Swindall with the Florida Coastal Conservancy, the non-profit arm of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol.

“It was fantastic on our stretch of beach, and was pretty good overall.”

The number of nests on the peninsula numbered 198, above last year’s (the year of Michael) 137.

Subtracting as one must do, 173 nests were evaluated; after hatching the clutch or nest is examined.

“So that is most likely 25 nests or so that were washed away or where we could not find the clutch,” Swindall said.

The number that stood out was the 65 percent hatch success on the peninsula; the percentage of eggs that hatch during a typical season is in the 50th percentile, Swindall added.

But 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.

In each of the past two years, expecting the start of a beach restoration project on the peninsula, turtle nests have been relocated from the southern end to north of Billy Joe Rish State Park.

Each of the past two years the number of nests relocated has totaled 76, helping to create something of a mini-hatchery.

The Indian Pass Turtle Patrol counted 83 nests this year, a banner year with four of those nests being green turtles.

“Indian Pass had a stellar year,” said Janna Rinehart of the Indian Pass Turtle Patrol.

Rinehart noted an unusual event which feeds into a theme for the season.

“We seldom see even one green sea turtle nest let alone four.”

Consider that two of those nests have yet to hatch, days after the season technically ended.

Or that the last nests on the peninsula were reported in early September, nearly a month after the season has switched from nesting to hatching.

Swindall said she found strange not so much the hatching end of the season but the nesting portion and the location of some of the nests.

“Where turtles were nesting was interesting especially on the southern end,” Swindall said, noting that the loss of dune caused changes in the lighting which may have impacted some turtles.

Further, the turtle season was aided by several years of education to visitors on turtles and their value in nature and how humans can get out of the way found traction, turtle patrol leaders said.

The Indian Pass group reported fewer obstructions and disorientation this year and more houses with turtle-friendly lighting.

More visitors, they added, were adhering to Leave No Trace.

What is most startling about all the numbers?

Just how long the odds are for those hatchlings from the moment they exit the nest.

This year, from the 198 nests on the peninsula beach or the 83 on Indian Pass, from the 9,888 eggs produced on the peninsula, just one out of 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.

“They have a tough life from the start,” Swindall said. “But that, the experts say, is the average.”