Ten loggerhead sea turtle nests – about 1,000 hatchlings – were lost on Anna Maria Island last week when high tides repeatedly covered them and washed the eggs into the Gulf.
Sea turtles breathe air, and when their porous shells are underwater, the turtles inside can drown. Once adrift, the eggs will not hatch, said Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shore Bird Monitoring.
Turtle Watch volunteers were able to move four nests to higher ground that had eggs washing out. Other nests were washed over but remained on the beach – 34 at last count – and they still have a good chance of hatching, she said.
However, many stakes marking turtle nests were washed away, and while they have been replaced in the approximate locations of the nests, it is even more important than ever for beachfront owners and visitors to keep their lights from being seen on the beach at night, Fox said.
While the washouts are part of nature, they come at a particularly bad time - about 500 hatchlings died earlier this month on the Island when they were disoriented by illegal lights. So far this turtle season, May 1 through Oct. 31, more than 1,000 hatchlings have been disoriented by lights, she said.
In addition, turtle populations already were down due to the unusually long, cold winter of 2010 and oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig – 525 dead turtles and 507 injured turtles have been reported, with unknown numbers affected.
Effect on local turtles
Most turtles that nest on Anna Maria Island are unlikely to be affected by the oil, wildlife experts say.
Based on currents, most hatchlings from the Island will swim south and away from the oil spill and are at lesser risk of encountering oil, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Sea Turtle Coordinator Sandy MacPherson said.
“Our population is not as vulnerable as the northern Gulf population,” she said, adding that no plans will be made to relocate local hatchlings unless oil approaches.
NOAA predictions show that the oil is unlikely to reach Florida’s southwest coast, because of the oceanographic features of the continental shelf.
Mother turtles return to their home foraging areas after they lay their nests, said Barbara Schroeder, National Sea Turtle Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Service.
Some local turtle mothers have traveled to the Florida peninsula in the past, according to turtle tagging and tracking programs, including one at Mote Marine Laboratory that focuses on Casey Key nesting turtles.
Mote studies have found that Casey Key turtles journey to Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas and the northern Gulf, which is affected by oil.
But most should be moving away from the oiled area, Schroeder said, adding, “Fortunately, the well has been capped.”
Few turtles have satellite tracking devices, so it’s impossible to know where the majority of the turtles are going, Fox said.
Tracking projects paint an incomplete picture because most tracked sea turtles are adult females, which come ashore to nest, while males rarely come ashore, according to Seaturtle.org, which hosts 28 wildlife tracking projects in the Gulf.
The oil has affected all five turtle species in the Gulf of Mexico, Schroeder said, adding that there is no way to know what affect oil exposure and ingestion will have on long term population trends.
If you see a nest hatching or have concerns about a sea turtle, call Turtle Watch at 778-5638.
impromptu turtle talks
SUN PHOTO/CINDY LANE
Debbie Basilius received the Sadie award from Suzi Fox
Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shore Bird Monitoring
on Saturday evening for her volunteer work.
Some lucky beachgoers are learning in their leisure time, watching sea turtle nest excavations on Anna Maria Island’s Gulf beaches.
Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shore Bird Monitoring volunteers conduct the excavations to determine how many turtles hatched from each nest, how many did not hatch and whether the hatchlings were disoriented and killed by lights or other factors.
Gathering around a nest marked by four yellow stakes, Vivian and Hannah Swanborg watched intently as Turtle Watch volunteer coordinators Claudia and Glenn Wiseman dug into a nest on Bradenton Beach recently, lifting out egg fragments and counting them.
Some eggs were intact.
“Will they hatch?” the children asked excitedly.
Not this long after the rest of the nest hatched, they learn, before getting a chance to look at the partially-developed turtles inside the unhatched eggs. The Wisemans, former teachers, explained to the growing crowd that not all eggs hatch, not all that do hatch make it to the Gulf and very few of those survive.
Lights may have disoriented some of the hatchlings, based on where their tracks led, they said, estimating that 58 turtles of the 74 eggs in the nest hatched.
Vacationers watching the excavation with their children were surprised to learn that it’s required by law to close blinds and drapes from sunset to sunrise to keep light from reaching the beach during turtle season, May 1 to Oct. 31.
The Wisemans are mentoring volunteers Jackie and Dan Skarritt, of Michigan; Jackie did the artwork of a hatchling and its tracks that appears on the new Turtle Watch T-shirt.
The Skarritts brought along family members including the Swanborg girls and Cristina Vilmar, a student majoring in marine biology at the University of Texas, who is doing a research internship at Mote Marine Laboratory this summer in the sea turtle program, swabbing turtle shells and eggs to test for petroleum from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The hours are terrible – overnight from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. – but the rewards make it worthwhile, she said.
Working under a starlit sky on the beach, listening to the waves and watching mother turtles lay their eggs and hatchlings burst out of nests laid earlier in the season, the only thing better would be to see both events in one night, she said.
The nestings will continue through this month, and the hatchings will continue for another two months or so. Until then, keep your eyes open for turtles, and keep your lights out.