Meet the Beach – Sea Turtle Nesting Season

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 ( 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.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center and Wild Amelia also do a great job of increasing sea turtle awareness.

Meet the Beach – Honeycomb Worm

Phragmatopoma caudata washed up in Fernandina Beach, Fl.

::WARNING:: This post is potentially full of incorrect information.

On the last Meet the Beach I left off promising to share what I consider the COOLEST thing I’ve ever found on a Florida beach. Here it is! I was wandering the beach one evening after a couple of days of NE winds and spotted a common whelk washed up on the shoreline. As I bent down to pick it up I noticed something I believe to be quite uncommon in this area.  A tiny worm had attached itself and built a home on the whelk. He was slowly moving in and out of his house as I picked the shell up and seemed as interested in checking me out as I was in checking him out.

Phragmatopoma caudata, peeking out of his tube.

I took a few pictures of him and then returned him to the sea with well wishes that he and his shell would find whatever habitat it was that they needed to carry on. I sent one of the pictures over to David’s sister, Emily, who’s work has led to knowing and befriending lots of biologists. She was kind enough to forward it along, but without better pictures and more information, the response that came back was more of an educated “best guess” than a “I can’t believe you found a …”

The best guess was that this little guy was a Phragmatopoma caudata, also known as Honeycomb worm from the family Sabellariid. These are the worms that make up Bathtub Reef in Stuart, Fl. They use special sensory organs around their mouth to find a suitable location to build their home and somehow, through the magic of nature, a thin mucous layer forms around them to which various small particles of minerals, diatom frustules, sponge spicules are then implanted, eventually building the honeycomb, tube like structure they call home. []

Phragmatopoma caudata, Fernandina Beach, Fl

As stated, this is a best guess at identification and I have no idea how often they are found on NE Florida area beaches, but if you ever come across one, there’s no denying how cute they are!

P.S. Honeycomb worm is the coolest thing I’ve ever come across in NE Florida, but if you’re curious as to the COOLEST, CUTEST thing I’ve ever come across anywhere, that would be micromelo undata, a species of sea snail. Their  Atlantic habitat range stretches from South America to Florida, but I spotted this guy in Puerto Rico a few months ago. He was no bigger than my pinkie nail and was hanging out on some exposed rocks at Tres Palmas.

Micromelo undata, Rincon, PR


Meet The Beach

Thistle blossom, Fernandina Beach, Florida

Though we’ve had several beautiful days as of late and there have even been a few with fun waves, the ocean temp is still struggling to get near sixty degrees. David’s got himself a new 4’3 and declares himself “hot” in the midday sun, but I’m trying to stretch my old 3’2 for one last season and until the water gets above sixty or the air gets into the eighties, you’ll find me admiring the surf from the shore. Yes, three weeks in tropical Puerto Rico does spoil one.

In doing my best to enjoy my time out of the water, I’ve tried to take in more of the beauty of the beach aside from the waves. I’ve been paying more attention to the animals and plants that live along the waters edge and admiring the many features of the landscape that come together to form the beach. I thought it might be nice to start a series on the blog featuring different things you might see on the beach in Fernandina with a bit of background information.

First up is one of my favorite plants, Cirsium horridulum, or Purple/Yellow Thistle.

Yellow Thistle growing in Fernandina Beach, Florida

Thistle can be found all over Florida, from the beach to pasture land, so long as it is a sandy, open area. It’s considered a Florida Native Plant  and though dormant through winter, by February you’ll see them starting to blossom out.

Thistle is the larval host to the Little Metalmark and Painted Lady butterflies, as well as a nectar source for bees.  The spines of the plant provide shelter for insects and  other invertebrates  attempting to escape becoming a meal for birds, including what I think is the invasive, Otala punctata, a species of land snail. has an interesting article on the colony of otala punctata found in Fernandina Beach, here.

Despite it’s menacing appearance and typical treatment as a ‘weed’, thistle is considered an edible, with first and second year leaves, stems and blossom end able to be eaten raw or cooked. Green Deane, of Eat the Weeds, has complete details for harvesting and preparing. I mean really, what doesn’t taste good after adding butter and salt?

Who wouldn't want to take a bite of this?

It looks like the air temps are trying to push into the seventies and even low eighties this week and I see a few days with south winds in the forecast (fingers crossed that it will push up some warmer water from the south!) so I’m hoping I’ll be in the water by the end of the week. I’ll try to keep this series going, exploring the beach and it’s features through the upcoming changing seasons. I already know what I’m sharing next and while I have no clue the background information on it, it is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever stumbled across while combing the shoreline.

No hay bolsas plastica

“No hay bolsas plastica.”

These were the words, printed on a piece of paper and taped to a caution cone, that greeted me at the door on my second trip to the grocery store in Rincon.  I was a little confused at first and literally thought that they meant that I could not bring in the two bags I had wadded up in my hand, the ones I had intentionally brought back to re-use. Initially thinking it was some kind of shop lifting prevention measure and trying to remember if that sign had been there the first time I went shopping, I put the bags in a recycle bin at the entrance to the store.

Turns out, the sign actually meant that the store itself no longer had plastic bags to put customers groceries in and Rincon’s plastic bag ban had officially gone into effect. Rincon’s mayor, Carlos Lopez Banilla is quoted in this article, Rincon first PR town to ban plastic bags, as stating that, “this is one of many steps Rincón is taking to become an environmental model city.”

Reusable Bag, 25 cents at the Econo

I was, quite honestly, overjoyed. There has not been a day of this trip that I have not seen one, if not multiple, sea turtles in the surf. I’ve also been treated to three separate humpback whale sightings and my absolute favorite thing EVER seen while surfing, a tiny seahorse, floating along just under the surface, it’s tail wrapped around a tiny piece of sargassum.

Unfortunately, there has also been rarely a day that I haven’t picked up handfuls of plastic from the shoreline, including numerous pieces of single use bags. Perhaps it sounds a little naive, but I believe in the rights of ocean dwelling animals to assume that everything floating in the ocean belongs there and is therefore fair game as food. These beings have no concept of ‘plastic’ and  consume it under the assumption of jellyfish, plankton, sargassum and more. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, over 100 million marine animals die each year due to plastic debris in the ocean.

The  bag ban not only moves Rincon closer to it’s goal of being an environmental model city, it makes Rincon, Puerto Rico (est. population 15,000), more environmentally progressive than any city in Florida where there is literally a ban on banning plastic bags, at the state level.

I love my beach, do not throw trash.

You read that right, local governments in Florida CANNOT currently determine their own laws or regulations concerning plastic bags. Disguised as an environmental measure waiting to come to fruition, Title 29, Chaper 403, Section 7033, states, “Until such time that the Legislature adopts the recommendations of the [DEP], no local government, local governmental agency, or state government agency may enact any rule, regulation, or ordinance regarding use, disposition, sale, prohibition, restriction, or tax of such auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags.

What does this mean? The great state of Florida can (and will) take it’s sweet time determining whether  it can or cannot find the resources to adopt any of the DEP recommendations. Meanwhile 60 plastic bags will continue to be handed out daily for every single re-usable bag used.

Thankfully, a few people (who are apparently not receiving any political donations from big plastic corporations) have decided to challenge this and Rep. David Richardson (D Miami-Dade),  has filed HB 661, allowing cities with less than 100,000 people to pass pilot programs restricting plastic bags, followed by studies on the environmental and economic impacts of doing so.

Sea Turtle Hatchlings, Fernandina Beach, Fl

Locally in NE Florida, Fernandina Beach has it own group, Bag the Bag, dedicated to finding ways to reduce the use of plastic bags and hopes to get Fernandina included in HB 661’s pilot program. Fernandina’s Vice-Mayor, Commissioner Johnny Miller is a prominent member of this group and says, “Both of these beautiful areas (Puerto Rico and Hawaii, who also has a ban on single use plastic) are not only calling attention to the damage to our ecosystem by these bags, but are taking effective action! I will continue to follow their lead and fight against these easily replaced hazards until they go the way of leaded gasoline and those polystyrene McDonald’s burger containers. I would love for my grandchildren to see a photo of a plastic shopping bag and say, “what is that?

Still wondering what’s the big deal about plastic? Can’t it just be recycled? Used to pick up pet waste? Disposed of properly? The DEP’s 2010 Retail Bag Report is a long read, but one of the things that stuck out to me the most was a line stating that Floridians recycling and re-use of plastic bags is shockingly low, around 12%. As a native Floridian, I not only believe that we can do better, but that we deserve to do better of ourselves.

It’s time for Florida, home to one of the world’s richest diversities of eco-systems, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with numerous rivers, lakes and swamps in between, to commit to protecting what is sacred to most of us. A ban on plastic bags is not too much government regulation, it’s a simple step in the right direction to helping preserve Florida and her immense water ways for future generations.

Links with more info:

Surfrider Rise Above Plastics Campaign


Sea Turtle Conservancy



Kelly’s New Quiver


Kelly seems to be using all the freedoms of being untied of a major corporate sponsor to stand up and speak out on some serious issues. The latest is a RVCA collaboration bringing further light  on the issue of killer whales used in the entertainment industry. It’s a bold move and one I applaud him for. Check out the link below for all the details on his newest quiver.

Kevin Ancell x Kelly Slater | The Pod Article

And, if you haven’t seen Blackfish, the film that spurred this move,  it’s now on Netflix. Watch Blackfish