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Searching for sea turtles on Siesta

Volunteers from Mote patrol the beaches days before sea turtle nesting season begins

SARASOTA — The sun is just beginning to rise when the white-shirted patrols set out on Siesta Beach with large, wooden stakes in hand.

They keep a brisk pace along the shore as they look for signs of any turtle crawls or nests left behind only days before the official sea turtle nesting season begins on Monday in Southwest Florida. As they make their trek, early morning joggers wave and one man breaks from his run to ask a brief question.

“Ah, the turtle searchers,” he beckons them, before quickly launching into an explanation of wooden cabanas stacked on the beach that obstruct views and access and may serve as an obstacle to turtles hoping to nest on the beach.

Public education and outreach is an important part of the job of a turtle patrol, says Coquina Homer, a seasonal biological technician with Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research program. She’s a former English teacher who started as a volunteer and later segued into a job with Mote. Now she handles turtle patrols of Siesta Beach, which is divided into multiple sections covered by various volunteers and employees.

“On Siesta especially, there’s so much opportunity to educate the public, because the public is so present,” Homer said. “I love communicating with the public, and as a teacher, I love teaching and educating, so I’m happy to answer questions.”

Homer’s job is three-fold: she patrols her stretch of beach, looking for any nests or crawls, checks in on volunteers to determine whether they’ve found anything and handles any discoveries they might have. In the event that they don’t, she then gives the go-ahead for the county and private contractors to rake and clean the beach. It is a juggling process, Homer says, as she attempts to answer someone’s question, talk on the phone and balance her wooden stakes all at once.

Mote’s turtle patrol plays an important role in the sea turtle nesting season process, said Kristen Mazzarella, a senior biologist with Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research program.

“Volunteers are our first responders,” Mazzarella said. “They go out and they locate and check on every nest in the morning.”

Although patrols begin more than two weeks before nesting season officially starts, Mazzarella said there is often a nest before the official start date. On the west coast, there have been two to three nests so far, she added, but none reported as of April 28 in Mote’s patrol zones — Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key and Venice.

On average, turtles lay 100-120 eggs in a nest and about five to seven nests in one season. But although those statistics sound high, only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood, according to Mazzarella. Threats to their nests, as well as the difficulty of their journey to the water when they hatch generally 70-80 days later, make it a taxing process. Excavating a nest where none of the hatchlings have survived is a part of the job that Homer has learned to accept.

“I’ve been told if every sea turtle made it, the ocean would be full of sea turtles,” Homer said.

One of the rewarding parts of the job for Mazzarella is seeing a sea turtle that has nested on the same beach before. Generally, sea turtles return to the same place to lay their eggs, and Mote has tagged over 6,000 turtles on Casey Key. When they see that same tag years later, scientists can note that the turtle has returned. In 2016, about 110 of the 450 individual turtles encountered on Casey Key had come to the beach before.

There’s a lot to be gleaned from the experience, but Homer said it’s not just for turtles; it’s beneficial for humans as well.

“We’re trying to preserve (the beach) for everyone — you and the turtles,” Homer says with a laugh. “We’d like to keep it clean and pristine for everyone.”

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