Although turtle nesting season began a couple of weeks early this year on Lido and Casey keys, as well as on Venice beaches, “(Siesta) turtles can read the calendar,” Tommy Vaughn-Birch, a Bay Island resident and volunteer with Mote Marine’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program, told members of the Siesta Key Association during their regular meeting May 3 at St. Boniface Episcopal Church.
The first Siesta nests appeared right on May 1, she added, the official starting date of the season, which traditionally ends on Oct. 31.
Mote volunteers monitor the 35 miles of the county’s coastline, from Longboat Key to south Venice, Vaughn-Birch said, walking near the water’s edge to search for signs in the early part of the season that female turtles have come ashore to nest. Later, she said, they look for patterns to indicate whether “the little dudes are going back in” the Gulf of Mexico after hatching.
Sarasota County has the largest sea turtle rookery on the west coast of Florida, Vaughn-Birch said, adding that the state has 90% of the loggerhead nests reported each year in the United States.
Although loggerheads are the most prevalent nesting turtles in Sarasota County, she added, “we are starting to see more green sea turtles’ nests.”
The biggest threat to the hatchlings — representing more than 50% of the cases — Vaughn-Birch pointed out, is exterior and interior condominium lighting. The second biggest threat, she said, is beach furniture.
A county ordinance does spell out the measures beachfront homeowners and renters should take to prevent baby sea turtle disorientation, she said, although she indicated that educating people about the threats is an important part of problem prevention.
Regarding outdoor lighting, Vaughn-Birch said she was interested in seeing whether any issues arose during the rehabilitation of the north Siesta bridge, which is set to start June 5; the work will go on at night only.
The “night glow” created by the bright lights on the site could be a problem, she said.
Among the data she offered, Vaughn-Birch said statistics have shown that out of 1,000 female hatchlings on a particular beach, only one is expected to survive to return to that beach to nest. Because the average lifespan of a sea turtle has been estimated at 60 years, and loggerheads generally are 30 to 40 years old before they begin nesting, she said the 2012 hatchlings would not be expected back until 2042.
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Vaughn-Birch educated the SKA directors and members on how to distinguish between crawl patterns for loggerhead and green sea turtles, pointing out the differences in how they use their flippers.
She also explained how to read the identification information attached to ropes and posts protecting nests. For example, she said, the first three items listed on a sign denote not only the key but the particular part of the island where the nest is located, along with the date the nest was discovered and the address.
A “V” on the sign means a permitted member of Mote’s staff has actually “dug down with their hands and verified that there are eggs down there,” she added.
An “H,” as expected, means the eggs have hatched, while a “DIS” means the baby turtles became disoriented after hatching, Vaughn-Birch explained.
Using photos again, she compared the tracks of disoriented hatchlings to “a little Matchbox car” driving in circles: “This is not what you want to see.”
Anyone interested in nesting data and other information about sea turtles may visit www.mote.org/seaturtles.