A day in the life of an LBK Turtle Watch Volunteer !!    Return

This article describes the duties of an LBK Turtle Watch volunteer throughout the nesting season.

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   Around the time when the snowbirds have made the trip back North, and are in the midst of planting spring flowers, and picking up yards strewn with winter debris, some "year rounders" are setting their alarm clocks for 5:45 a.m. to prepare for a 6:30 a.m. beach walk!  Longboat Key Turtle Watch members are among this group.  May 1st marks the official start of Turtle nesting season, and local volunteers accept the "Call to Duty" for The Longboat Key Turtle Beach Patrol.

   In early May, late at night, Mother Turtles start to come ashore to bury about 120 golf ball sized eggs.  Most of these moms on Florida's West Coast are of the Logger Head species, so named because of their large head.  These turtles average 250 lbs, and drag themselves up the beach with their sea flippers, to a location where they feel would be a good place to dig a nest.  Once found, they use their rear flippers to dig a hole 1 foot deep, 8 inches in diameter, and deposit their eggs.  Then, using all their flippers, the moms fill the hole and completely cover the nest leaving it hidden.  This starts the 55 day incubation period.  After this 2 hour process, the tired moms make their way back to the Gulf, leaving a nest full of eggs to all the dangers of nature.

Enter the "Turtle Beach Patrol" armed with a quiver of marking sticks, brightly colored tape, measuring tape, official nest recording forms and plastic garbage bags.  The patrols are made up of  2 or more people that walk about 2 miles of beach looking for clues that a mom may have come ashore to lay her eggs.  The clue is a trench coming from the sea, winding up the beach to an area of scattered sand and then circling back to the water.  This trench, with its distinctive flipper marks on either side, is made when the turtle drags herself up the beach, and the scattered sand indicates where a nest may have been dug and then covered up.  The patrol carefully hand digs in the scattered sand area searching for eggs in an effort to determine if the nest is "Real" or a "False Crawl". If eggs are found, the nest is covered back up, marked with 4 stakes, the stakes are tied with bright colored tape and the distance from the nest to the water and to the grass line is measured and recorded on an official form.  The stakes are marked with the nest location, the current date, and the expected hatch out date, which averages 55 days after the nest date.  The data from the forms is entered into a local data base and the forms are given to Mote Marine.  Mote collects these forms from all over the state, and the data is compiled in an effort to keep track of the ever changing turtle population and nesting trends.

Patrols also pick up garbage as they walk their assigned beach, typically filling two plastic grocery bags with bottles, cups and other beach garbage.  This daily activity continues with more nests being found and marked and existing nests being checked to see if Raccoons, Ants, Sea Crabs, Dogs and even People have dug into the nest for the eggs.  Some nests may be "caged" to keep night prowlers from digging down into the nest, and some new nests may be moved to "higher ground" if it is in danger of being washed out by high tides.  If the eggs must be moved, they are carefully dug out and reburied in a hand made hole similar to the original nest. This must be completed within 10 hours of nest laying, before the yoke has a chance to adhere to the inside of the shell.

Excitement among the patrollers starts to build about a week before the first nest is due to hatch.  At this time the nests are checked for a "crater" indicating that the turtles have hatched, usually in the darkness of the night, and dug themselves out leaving an empty space where the sand has fallen down..  Patrollers search and hope to find telltale baby turtle tracks that lead to the sea and not toward beach lights.  Some of these 100 hatchlings are eaten by birds or crabs on the trip to the water, and once in the water they may become a meal for waiting fish. The survivors swim for miles until the Gulf current carries them around Florida, up the Eastern coast of the U.S., across the Atlantic to Europe, and south to Africa, where they will spend their early years. One out of 1000 will survive the journey and return to Florida in 20+ years to lay her eggs on the same beach where she was born!

Three days after a nest hatches it is dug up in hopes of saving the few little guys that didn't quite make it out.  The dead are counted, and the eggs are categorized into groups and counted: the eggs that didn't hatch, the ones that did, and the ones that partially hatched (they really stink)!   All this information is saved and categorized by an LBK volunteer, and then given to Mote.  The recovered turtles are put in a large bucket and covered up.  Then, just as the sun goes down and the birds have gone to nest, they are released about 20 feet from the waters edge.  This activity is usually watched by excited spectators and patrollers as the little turtles magically make their way to the water, a process that implants a natural homing device in them that will guide them back to that exact beach, after a 20 year, 10,000 mile journey!

Nests that have shown no signs of hatching 10 days after their "due" date are carefully hand dug up to determine if the nest truly hatched.  Eggs that never hatched may indicate infertility or possibly being submerged underwater for more then 24 hours by a hard rain or extra high tide.  Evidence of predators is also investigated.

This Patrol cycle continues until usually mid September when the last nest has hatched or been opened.  Last year 200+ nests were found in the Longboat Key patrol area of Manatee County. The official end of the Turtle nesting season is November 1st.

Dates of nest diggings are posted on this LBK Turtle Watch web site, and  Longboat Turtle Watch Tee Shirts may be purchased after the dig.  It is not unusual to have 80 people at a dig. Flash pictures are not allowed, and only licensed patrollers are allowed to dig and handle the eggs.  Cyndi Seamon walks the weekends and anyone interested is welcome to join us for a fun walk, interesting conversation, and a maybe a breakfast out. Call 586-1813.

Is it all about the turtles?  Well maybe, but the exercise and cleaning up the beach is also important.  We marvel at the science and nature of the whole process, and enjoy the excitement of digs and releases with people who share a common interest.  To many people the whole Sea Turtle activity is another overly stressed environmental concern where turtles take on a higher priority than human beings. It's that time when lights that shine on the beach must be turned off, and beach chairs must be moved back from the waterline to an area closer to the dunes.  One of the primary goals of the Longboat Key Turtle Watch group is to show all people that the small sacrifices that we make have a big impact on the survival of an endangered species.


   The Longboat Key Turtle Watch