The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 10 No. 30 - April 28, 2010


Turtle Tom Van Ness an Island legend


PHOTO PROVIDED BY AMITW Turtle Tom Van Ness is seen here
checking a hatched turtle nest to get a count on the number of
eggs and hatchlings that made it safely into the Gulf waters.

Turtle nesting season is literally just around the corner. It will officially begin on May 1.

This year, it’ll be a bit of an adjustment to think about sea turtle nesting without Turtle Tom Van Ness.

He passed away over the weekend after a long battle with mesothelioma.

Van Ness has been almost a fixture here since he joined Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch as a volunteer in 1996.

“I had just taken on the sea turtle nesting permit holder’s job, and I was a little shy of volunteers,” Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch Director Suzi Fox said. “Tom said he’d help run the three-mile section that runs along Coquina and Bradenton Beach.”

Fox said Tom Van Ness would back his truck into the Cortez parking lot with a thermos of coffee.

“He’d watch the runners, and occasionally he’d yell out, ‘Hey, want to join a group of people to watch turtles every morning,’” she recalled.

A dozen volunteer walkers, many still active today, joined AMITW as a result of Turtle Tom’s early morning recruiting efforts.

“That was back when it wasn’t uncommon to have 12 nests down there in one day,” Fox said. “We’d have to cage every one of them because of lighting problems.”

Fox said Tom would sit by the nests when they were ready to hatch and gather a crowd.

“Some people came here every summer and sought out Tom to sit by the nests with him,” she said. “He’d educate them about the marvels of sea turtles and the threats they face,” she said.

Both children and adults were drawn to Van Ness, and hundreds of visitors left the Island after their vacations with a love for these marine reptiles they got from Van Ness, according to Fox.

“People brought blankets to sit on and bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes and no-see ‘ums,” Fox said. “We used to say Tom was holding court.

She said that whenever anyone called, she would tell them Tom was sitting at a nest that might hatch that night.

“In a soft, quiet voice Tom would weave tales about turtle stories, and people would learn to save them.

“Some would bring the next generation for Tom to teach,” she said.

Turtle Tom will continue his teaching in The Sun each nesting season as we continue to run Turtle Tom’s Timely Tips, which will be a combination of Tom’s timeless knowledge and new information from AMITW.

Turtle rules start May 1

Sea turtle nesting season begins on May 1, when Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch volunteers will begin patrolling the beaches to stake off nests for their protection.

Gulffront property owners, residents and beachgoers must start their monitoring activities, too, making sure they comply with federal, state and local laws regarding contact with turtles, lights, tree trimming and beach furniture and equipment.

Five sea turtle species swim in Florida waters, including the loggerhead, the most common sea turtle in Florida, weighing an average 275 pounds, the green, weighing an average 350 pounds, the leatherback, weighing between 500 to 1,500 pounds, the smaller Kemp’s ridley, the rarest sea turtle in the world, and the hawksbill, averaging 150 pounds.

The loggerhead is threatened and is being considered for the endangered species list, while the other four already are endangered, one step closer to extinction.

Because of their status, the Endangered Species Act, the Florida Statutes and Anna Maria municipalities require the following to increase their chances of successful nesting, hatching and survival in the beach areas they share with humans.

Contact with turtles

Touching nesting or hatchling sea turtles is prohibited by federal and state law.

Do not approach a sea turtle coming out of the water to nest. You may startle her and she may return to the water without nesting. Do not stand between hatchlings and the water, or they may head away from the water.

Avoid using flashlights, fishing lights or flash cameras near turtles.

If you find a turtle in distress, such as a hatchling wandering in a road, parking lot or headed away from the water, or if you see someone disturbing a nest or a turtle, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Law Enforcement at 1-888-404-FWCC or *FWC from any cell phone.


From May 1 through Oct. 31, beachfront residents and visitors must shield all lights that can be seen from the beach from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Lights, including interior lights, may not directly or indirectly illuminate the beach.

Light can prevent sea turtles from emerging from the surf to nest and may affect how they return to the sea after nesting.

Light also lures newly-emerged hatchlings away from the water, exposing them to death by dehydration, predators and vehicles. Hatchlings find their way to the water by moving toward the brightest horizon, which, without artificial lights, is the horizon above the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea grape trimming

Sea grape trees act as a natural vegetative barrier blocking artificial light from nesting beaches. Trimming or removal of sea grapes and other trees and tall plants increases light levels on the beach, which can deter nesting and disorient hatchlings, and is considered interference with the normal nesting behavior of threatened and endangered species, exposing property owners to fines.

Furniture and equipment

Furniture and equipment, such as chairs, personal watercraft, umbrellas, tents and grills must be removed from the beach from sunset until sunrise each night because they can prevent nesting turtles from reaching the upper beach where they prefer to nest and entangle hatchlings on their way to the water. Since heavy equipment is not allowed on the beach during nesting season, it must be removed by hand.

Nothing should ever be placed on sand dunes or salt-resistant vegetation such as sea oats, which are protected by federal law.

Avoid using umbrella poles during sea turtle nesting season, instead anchoring a buried umbrella holder or sleeve before the nesting season or using umbrellas that clamp directly to furniture.

Fill in holes, such as those made by children, that may entrap turtles.

Turtle Tom

It’s turtle time and volunteers are ready

The Gulf temperature is in the mid-70s and rising.

When it hits 80 degrees, Mother Nature will cue mother sea turtles to lay their eggs on Anna Maria Island beaches.

The volunteers at Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring are ready.

Beginning on May 2, more than 70 volunteers will scour the shores daily at dawn for telltale turtle tracks, before the tides and beachgoers can erase them. When they find a nest, they will stake it out, date it and check on it every day until its hundred or so eggs hatch.

Volunteers picked up their red flags to mark the nests and their yellow stakes and tape to stake them off at their annual training meeting on Thursday.

The new ones look forward to seeing their first turtle dig a nest and watching their first nest hatch.

But they will see some less magical things, too. A beach chair left out overnight, with tracks leading up to it and back out into the water, one more mother turtle discouraged from laying her nest. Plastic trash on the beach that can choke turtles. Maybe even dead hatchlings, disoriented by an obstinate photographer who insisted on using a flash.

Still, Turtle Watch Director Suzi Fox tells them, walking the beach at dawn and finding turtle tracks is worth it.

“It’s a gift,” she says.

Protecting sea turtles is especially important this year, after an unusually prolonged, cold winter killed more sea turtles than usual.

The Sea Turtle Hospital at Mote Marine Laboratory is past its 18-patient capacity, with three Kemp's ridley sea turtles and 14 green sea turtles, both endangered species under federal law, and one loggerhead sea turtle, a threatened species. New patients include a green sea turtle nicknamed Terra for its arrival on Earth Day.

But sea turtles, one of the oldest surviving species on Earth, are pretty resilient, Fox told volunteers - even when storms wash out nests, floating eggs sometimes hatch.

Watch for the gift this summer.

AMISUN ~ The Island's Award-Winning Newspaper