It’s 6:30 a.m. Monday, and three veteran turtle watchers are reporting for duty. Cindy Hayworth, Rosemary Treonis and Judy Williams gather in the parking lot of Covert II, 5231 Gulf of Mexico Drive, prepared to walk Zone C of Longboat Key Turtle Watch territory. The walk will take them nearly two miles to Gulfside Road. Zone B volunteers are patrolling the area from Gulfside Road to Broadway, while a volunteer walks Zone A, the stretch of beach from Broadway to Beer Can Island. To their south, volunteers walk Zone D, which spans from Covert II to the Sarasota-Manatee county line. South of Zone D — the Sarasota County side of the island — is patrolled by Mote Marine Laboratory interns.
The heavy rain that fell the night before could make it difficult to spot turtle tracks, which often get washed away by storms. And, even if the rain had continued, the turtle watchers would still be walking. They walk rain or shine, rescheduling only in the event of lightening. Even if lightening is present, they don’t cancel their patrol for the day, but instead monitor the weather until conditions are safe. Walking early in the morning is important because turtles nest at night. Plus, walkers gather scientific data that is pieced together by researchers to learn about trends in turtle populations. Collecting data at the same time each day makes the numbers more scientific.
Longboat Key Turtle Watch has been an institution on the island since 1969, when former Mayor Kit Fernald established the group. In the 41 years since then, volunteers wake up to walk the beaches each day at the crack of dawn during turtle nesting season, which runs from May 1 through Oct. 31.
They carry with them the tools of the trade:
There are flags that they’ll use to mark turtle tracks.
There are wooden stakes and tape that they’ll use to stake out a nest if they find that those tracks lead to a nest.
There are forms that they use to document their findings.
There’s a cell phone that they use to call long-time turtle watcher Freda Perrotta if they have questions.
And lastly, they carry plastic bags to collect trash. It’s not an official turtle-watcher duty, but many walkers pick up trash left behind by beachgoers as they walk.
“We have a very clean beach because we do our walks,” says Treonis, who became a turtle watcher six years ago.
As they begin their stroll in the dark, the volunteers discuss the fact that nesting numbers are up from last year.
“It’s been a very active season,” Treonis says.
On the Manatee County side of the island, as of Aug. 7, volunteers have counted 126 nests, compared to 100 nests for the same period of 2009. The numbers are especially strong given the slow start of this year’s season. During the first six weeks of nesting season, turtle watchers counted 15 nests, just more than half of the 29 they counted in the first six weeks of the 2009 season. The lagging pace was likely the result of this year’s record-low temperatures. Warming temperatures act as a cue for turtles to begin nesting, so turtles might have gotten the signal later in the year. But the nesting season heated up quickly with the temperatures. Nests often hatch a few days early in exceptionally warm weather. This summer’s hotter-than-average temperatures could be the reason that some nests this year have hatched several days before the end of the typical 55- to 60-day incubation period.
According to Williams, who became a turtle watcher in 2000, shortly after she moved to the island from Ohio, sand temperatures also affect turtle nests by determining the sex of the turtles. Colder sand results in a higher proportion of male turtles, while warm sand is more likely to create females.
They check on every marked nest as they walk, looking for signs of disturbances or hatchings. They also take note of anything along the beach that could adversely impact turtles. If they spot a large hole in the sand that a hatchling could fall into, they might fill it in with their feet. If they see lights that cast a shadow onto the beach, prohibited by a town ordinance because they disorient turtles, they often notify Mote, which will then contact the property owner.
They also search for turtle tracks. Sometimes the path of the large tracks left by an adult turtle will circle around back to the Gulf without nesting in what is known as a false crawl. But often, the tracks lead them to a nest, which they find by looking for the highest mound of sand. Then, they dig to confirm the nest, feeling for the eggs that are typically buried about an elbow’s length underground. Digging for eggs is an exciting task for turtle watchers.
“It’s the height of what we do,” Hayworth says. “It’s like a detective type of thing. After we find the nest, we’ve scouted out the treasure.”
If they can’t locate eggs, the stake out a larger area than they would typically mark for a nest and identify it as an “unverified nest.”
Tiny tracks show them that a nest has hatched. When they find hatchling tracks, they follow them to make sure that they lead to the water. If the tracks trace away from the water, it’s a sign of disorientation. When the nest hatches, most hatchlings find their way to the shore. But in case of a straggler or two, volunteers wait three days and then excavate the nest. They then count the number of eggs that hatched and how many were infertile and give the numbers to researchers. Longboat Key Turtle Watch is one of the few turtle-watch groups that holds public excavations, usually taking place in the evening. The events draw as many as 200 people.
“We do it because of education,” Hayworth says.
The walk continues until 8 a.m. When they reach Gulfside Road, they call an automated system at Mote, and Treonis leaves a message saying that Zone C has no activity to report.
But there’s always tomorrow — at 6:30 a.m. sharp.
Trash or treasure?
Penny Rosenthal, who has volunteered for Turtle Watch for 25 years, has found quite a few treasures during her morning walks on the beach. She has a collection of items including fossilized bone and pieces of coral that she has picked up during turtle walks and later identified. Other findings: flashlights, keys, a gold chain and three watches in a single morning. And it turns out, she doesn’t just look out for turtles; she always reports valuables to the Longboat Key Police Department.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].