There are seven sea turtle nests at this early stage in the 2015 nesting season. While surfing yesterday a curious juvenile sea turtle, just over a foot in length, poked his head out of the water on three separate occasions to see what I was up to. I saw another slightly larger turtle 20 minutes later. The day before in the distance I spotted a head so large I thought it must belong to a leatherback but loggerheads get quite large as well.
For a lot of people Fernandina Beach is just the right size. One might say that our seasonal nesting sea turtle population is just the right size if you want to learn a lot about sea turtles. If you go down to Melbourne, FL, in the vicinity of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, they get so many nests that they don’t identify or mark them all (http://www.seaturtlespacecoast.org/). Up here we have a dedicated group of volunteers walking the beach every morning for several months in hopes of spotting the distinctive, tractor-like trail left by a nesting female sea turtle. I used hours accumulated on turtle walks for a good portion of the service hours I needed to qualify for the Bright Futures Scholarship. Assistant principal Mary Duffy, also president of the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch (AISTW), was more than happy to sign off on them for me. I was determined not to miss a nest but I can’t say that I didn’t watch the occasional set wave roll through.
Last year I picked up hours waiting tables at Slider’s for some extra income. I only live about 5 or 6 blocks South of the restaurant so I walked to work and always took the beach way. More than once while walking home from a long night (the employees there earn every penny) I saw the definitive tracks of a nesting sea turtle. The night I saw a nesting leatherback was unforgettable. The turtle sunk her massive body just over halfway under the sand where you could only see the top of her shell while digging the nest cavity. As she finished covering the eggs and rose up out of the sand I was humbled by her size and the process that took her several hours from start to finish.
Even having volunteered with AISTW when I was in highschool I held on to some major misconceptions until just recently. The first being that hatching/emergence happens on the full moon. The hatching date followed by the emergence a couple days later is determined by an incubation period which varies depending on the temperature of the nest and the surrounding sand. On average the loggerhead incubation last about 55 days from the mother laying the eggs while leatherback nests go about 70 days. If you follow the nesting data at AISTW (an annual tradition for Surf Asylum) you’ll discover that they can go sooner or much later often depending on the month when the eggs were laid.
Another misconception I had was that once the baby turtles hatch there is a non-stop mad dash for the surface. I discovered after “listening” to nests (by putting my ear to a piece of paper on the ground outside of the volunteer marked nest boundaries) that a few turtles start digging and then everyone else joins in. It creates a sound similar to a breaking wave which typically lasts 20 to 40 seconds after which they rest. They rest a lot. It’s an unimaginably challenging synchronized effort and obstacles like buried trash or plant roots can complicate the baby sea turtles’ efforts. If you want to have a chance to witness an actual emergence, a remarkably fast event that some liken to a sea turtle volcano our best advice would be to join AISTW and soak up all their great local knowledge like a sponge and even then it’ll take a lot of patience and luck.
The importance of Respect for these original “locals” can’t be overstated. Things we take for granted in our daily lives become major obstacles to this ancient ritual that happens on our beaches every summer. Our moonlit beaches are generally safe and enjoyable at night but things like innocently dug holes, beach canopies and chairs left out, bright lights, traffic that sounds like the white noise created by water, unleashed pets, single use plastics, etc. complicate this ancient ritual of nature. We gained a new appreciation for the challenges facing sea turtles when we realized that the peak of nesting season often coincides with the 4th of July.
We have seen emerging hatchlings seem to head South toward the dim light of Jacksonville on the horizon before correcting East toward the ocean and a couple years ago several hatchlings from a disoriented nest met their end in the Sadler roundabout. At Surf Asylum we worry that even responsibly disposed of single use plastic as it spills out, overflows, or catches wind at various points in our waste stream (disposal routes) will end up in our waterways as the infamous jellyfish mimics. This is why we support initiatives like Fernandina’s Bag the Bag and hope for a day when every item of clothing that comes into a retail store isn’t individually wrapped in plastic. Sea turtle nesting season inspires us to make small meaningful changes in our lives and to be mindful of the effects of our choices and actions. When one observes the labor (very much on the order of human child birth) required for the nesting mother to make it far enough up the beach that her eggs are safe from the fall storms, filling a hole on the beach or carrying a canopy off the beach on a daily basis pale in comparison. Here’s to Mary Duffy, Len and Pat Kreger, and the many other dedicated volunteers with AISTW for helping us understand and care for our natural heritage.