Video by Matthew Stewart, courtesy of Pass-A-Grille Beach’s Facebook page.During a recent sunset wedding on Pass-A-Grille Beach, the festivities were interrupted by some tiny wedding crashers: baby loggerhead turtles hatching after two months in their nest, deep under the sand.
“They had to hold up the wedding for the turtles,” said Joe Widlansky, a biologist with Sea Turtle Trackers, a local non-profit. “The baby turtles went right through the wedding arch … on their little march out to the sea.”
The turtles hatched July 23 during a season that has seen 90 nests laid on St. Pete Beach and Shell Key. That’s the largest number since Bruno Falkenstein, a well-known area businessman and the founder of Sea Turtle Trackers, first received a permit to monitor the sea turtles from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) almost 35 years ago. Those 90 had been counted as of July 29, up from an average of 30 per season in the decades prior to 2011, and a few more were likely, Widlansky said.
Loggerheads, which average 275 pounds and three feet across, are the most common of the five turtle species in Florida and the only ones listed as threatened rather than endangered, according to the FWCC website. Populations of sea turtles worldwide are falling due to disappearing nesting habitat, ocean pollution, plastics, fishing nets and predators that eat the turtle eggs and hatchlings.
Also, lights along increasingly developed coastal areas confuse the baby hatchlings, which may head for the artificial lights instead of the sea, getting exposed to predators, run over by cars or baked to death when the hot sun rises. Only about one in 1,000 turtles survive to adulthood, the FWCC says.
Every day during nesting season, from May 1 to October 31, Sea Turtle Trackers monitors Shell Key and the stretch of St. Pete Beach from 68th Avenue to the north to 1st Avenue to the south. Three licensed staffers and 90 volunteers assist in the effort.
At dawn they drive along the shore in their 1966 Jeep looking for bulldozer-like tracks left by female turtles as they rise from the ocean and cross the sand seeking a dark quiet spot to lay their eggs. When volunteers find a nest, they rope it off and record its location and distance from the high-tide mark; sometimes they move it if it’s too close to the water.
When nests are 50 days old, volunteers start sitting by them all night to protect the babies when they hatch and direct them toward the sea. The nests are covered with a wire cage to keep the hatchlings temporarily corralled in case no one is present when they emerge.
Nests typically contain 100 to 120 eggs, three to five percent of which don’t hatch. After the babies leave, the volunteers wait 72 hours before digging into the nest to count the unhatched eggs. All the information is passed on to the FWCC, which combines it with data gathered by similar groups state-wide to create a picture of the health of the overall turtle population.
On a recent Friday morning, the sky at St. Pete Beach wasn’t even pink yet when Widlansky started his patrol at 6:19 a.m., exactly half an hour before sunrise. He made his way slowly, weaving along the sand to avoid baby skimmers hatched at the nearby colony. He visually checked each loggerhead nest and halted at each one with a cage. He opened the wire door and patted the sand into a little ramp for the hatchlings.
He stopped to chat with a Swiss tourist who was curious about the sea turtles and later pulled over to ask employees of a beachfront hotel about lounge chairs left on the sand overnight in violation of local ordinance. If the adult turtles bump into anything in their path, they return to the water, possibly missing the chance to lay their eggs.
Elsewhere he stopped to pick up trash and mark the nests that would soon be hatching. He didn’t spot any turtle tracks that day: the laying season was winding down and the hatching season ramping up.
Widlansky, who got a degree in biology in his mid-40s after spending decades at a jet-engine factory in Connecticut, says he’s one of those few individuals who is actually able to work at their dream job.
“I absolutely love doing this,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”