SARASOTA — It takes a second for the hatchling sea turtle to register the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand on one of the stretches of Longboat Key’s beach.
The turtle swipes its front flippers tentatively, as if not quite sure how to move them. It has, after all, spent months in a dark nest buried below the sand only to emerge from its egg shell suddenly.
But the hatchling is not deterred. It makes its inching trek towards the water line, one flipper in front of the other, like a crawl, until a wave washes over the turtle and it is carried out to sea.
When turtles hatch, they instinctively know two things: follow the bright horizon and swim toward the weed line, where the currents converge.
But not all turtles get that right. Only about 1 in every 1,000 hatchling sea turtles make it to adulthood, and many are lost journeying from nest to sea. Some fall prey to coyotes or raccoons, who tear through the nests to eat the yolk from the not-yet-hatched turtle eggs. Some turtles hatch only to mistake a condominium light for the horizon, ending up disoriented on the wrong side of the beach. And some make it to a sort of beach, a swimming pool, only for them to expend the initial burst of energy they’re supposed to use while swimming in the ocean.
Still, there is hope for these baby turtles. Many of them end up at Mote Marine Laboratory’s Hatchling Hospital, a small outpost in the aquarium’s Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center. Brought in from Mote’s daily sea turtle patrols or calls from the community, the hatchlings are often placed in buckets with blankets over the top so the dark, enclosed environment mimics a nest. After feeding them twice a day, injecting them with nutrients and patting them with antibiotic ointments, Mote staff and interns embark on something that almost seems like a ritual: the sea turtle release.
“A lot of the turtles we have come in need of a little more care or weren’t quite ready to come out of the nest, so they have a second chance coming in here,” said Holly West, Mote’s senior aquarium biologist for sea turtles. “We can actually clean them up and get them to heal with food, care and fluid supplements.”
Yet scientists have little to no data on how these hatchlings fare in the wild. The first 10 to 15 years of a turtle’s life are often called “the lost years” from a research perspective, according to Kristen Mazzarella, a senior biologist in Mote’s sea turtle conservation and research program who oversees much of the nesting data. Many of these turtles are too small to put satellite tags on in the hatchling phase.
“We have no way of tracking that right now,” Mazzarella said. “Their survival is too low to have really good technology placed on them. You’re either going to assist in killing a hatchling or you’re going to lose your expensive equipment.”
But a small study conducted by West has indicated one clear threat to hatchlings who make it into the sea: plastic. Of the 142 hatchlings surveyed who had washed back onto the beach, barely alive after weeks in the ocean, 72 percent of them had ingested some kind of human-made debris.
“Just like any baby animal, they’re going to eat anything that fits into their mouth,” Mazzarella said. “There’s nobody who’s going to be slapping them down, saying, ‘Nope.’”
In recent years, record-breaking numbers of sea turtle nests have turned into record-breaking hatchling numbers in the hospital. On average, the hospital used to see about 1,200 hatchlings per year, according to West. But that number skyrocketed last summer to 3,400, almost double the amount seen in previous years. This year, the hospital has seen a little more than 2,500 hatchlings, a number that West expects will level out when peak hatchling months come to a close at the end of September.
Despite early reports that 2017 would be another record-breaking sea turtle nesting season, Mazzarella says it seems that is no longer the case. While nest numbers have broken records on Longboat Key, Lido Key and Siesta Key, the current total of 4,498 nests will likely not reach the 4,588 nests laid in 2016, Mazzarella says.
If the numbers continue to rise, that may represent a healthy turtle population and lead to a change in the way Mote keeps its records during sea turtle nesting season. They may be able to document a smaller portion of nests.
“We’ll have to reevaluate how much we’re going to do and how much is necessary to do,” Mazzarella said. “If they’re doing so well, we may back off.”