Sea turtle nesting season officially began Sunday and will continue into October, with Florida hosting 90 percent of nests in the United States.
Wes Moore, a volunteer for the Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol, said volunteers will patrol the shoreline on ATV throughout the season to monitor nesting.
“It’s impossible to tell what the numbers will be like,” Moore said. “But there’s already a report of a nest in south Ponte Vedra, and that gives me an indication that it may be a good year.”
According to a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC), over 680 nests appeared last year along St. Johns County beaches.
But Moore said that number is just a fraction of what other counties such as Volusia and Palm Beach report.
“Lighting has a lot to do with it. St. Augustine gets way fewer nests than Ponte Vedra Beach and the area around Guana (Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve) gets,” Moore said.
Sea turtles seeking dark, quiet beaches are distracted and confused by bright coastlines, and lights often lure hatchlings away from the ocean toward busy highways.
Although the county estimated nearly 47,000 of those hatchlings last season, the FWC reports only one in 1,000 survive.
Predators play a huge role in mortality rates, but Moore said beachgoers can cause just as much damage if they aren’t cautious.
“People really need to remember to pick up their trash so the turtles don’t eat it,” Moore said. “And fill up holes so they don’t become stuck.”
Scott Eastman, the director of Eastman Environmental, said in an email that while turtles have made an early appearance, plenty of obstacles stand in the way.
Erosion, increased visitation, light pollution and beach nourishment are just a few of the problems worrying Eastman. It’s the seawalls he’s really bothered with.
Coastal armoring intended to prevent sand loss and protect upland structures is creating barriers for turtles trying to nest in the dunes.
“My greatest concerns for the upcoming season are the eroded north beaches and the increasing amount of seawalls,” Eastman said. “We have already had two false crawls that encountered seawalls.”
False crawls are when sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, get confused or distracted and then go back into the ocean without laying their eggs.
Barriers such as seawalls force some turtles to lay their eggs dangerously close to the water.
Volunteers are also encountering extended walkways, making ATV patrols difficult during high tide.
“Since we haven’t had a major storm in so long, the vegetation has grown out so far,” Moore said. “Now the definition of what’s the beach and what’s someone’s yard has changed.”
Moore said the Department of Environmental Protection gives homeowners permits to build extended walkways to prevent dune traffic.
“But the very first big storm we have, that vegetation will disappear,” Moore said. “It impacts us because it’s hard to ride an ATV around all of these walkways.”
Plus, he added, it’s just another roadblock in the sea turtles’ mission.
To increase the nesting population, the county requests everyone reduce their light pollution (turn off outside lights, close curtains when you have lights on), remove obstables from the sand and refrain from speeding in driving portions of the beach.
The FWC emphasizes leaving the nests to nature. Tampering with nests can result in $20,000 in fines.
“The turtles have survived centuries well before we did any monitoring, so the species has a way of protecting itself,” Moore said.