Longboat Key Turtle Watchers are on the beach during nesting season before most peoples’ alarms ring.
Armed with wooden stakes, colored ribbon and other tools of the trade, they patrol the Manatee County stretch of Longboat Key’s beach in search of nests. As the season progresses, they’ll be on the lookout for signs that nests have hatched.
But, how exactly do Turtle Watch volunteers find and mark nests? And how do their efforts benefit turtles?
To find out, we set our alarms early Wednesday, May 15, to set out with permitted Turtle Watch volunteer Cyndi Seamon and three other volunteers who are relative newcomers: Lindsey Conrad, Sam DeGiammario and Jennifer Lally.
The group walked Zone C, one of four areas that Turtle Watch patrols, which extends from Covert Inn II, 5231 Gulf of Mexico Drive, north to Gulfside Road.
What follows is a minute-by-minute account of the morning’s walk.
6:19 — Seamon, Conrad, DeGiammario and Lally arrive at Covert II condominium and head to the beach.
They’re not just carrying tools for marking and documenting nests; they also carry bags to pick up trash left behind by beachgoers, and towels, in case they find an injured seabird.
“If I don’t take care of it, who will?” DeGiammario asks of the beach. “People seem to think that the beach is their ashtray.”
6:29 — The Turtle Watchers aren’t the only ones looking out for the turtles.
“There are three nests ahead,” a jogger says as he runs southbound on the beach.
6:34 — Seamon sees a white light from the beach — a violation during nesting season because lights can disorient turtles.
She snaps a photo of the light to forward it to Paula Clark, who contracts with the town to perform lighting inspections. Clark will contact the property owners about making their lighting turtle-friendly.
Seamon has noticed that compliance with lighting requirements has improved in recent years.
6:45 — The group of four passes what’s been dubbed “Freda’s nest.”
It’s the first nest they found this season, but not the season’s first nest. That distinction went to the Sanctuary, where General Manager Sheila Connell and maintenance supervisor Fred Boessel found the first nest in Sarasota County the day before the official start of nesting season. On the Manatee County part of the Key, volunteers found the season’s first nest near Longboat Harbour Towers.
This nest is special, however, because it’s outside of The Shore condominium, where longtime Turtle Watch volunteer Freda Perrotta lives.
6:45 — Seamon spots tracks in the sand that cause her to do a double-take before realizing humans dragging coolers made the tracks.
6:47 — It’s what they’ve been waiting for: real turtle tracks.
Volunteers follow the tracks near the Shore condominium and find a body pit in the sand where the female turtle apparently tried to plant herself with enough room to deposit approximately 100 ping-pong ball-sized eggs.
But, the body pit isn’t accompanied by a mound of sand or snow angel-like marks, both of which are signs that a female has nested. (The mound and snow-angel marks are left behind because the female buries her nest using her flippers.) This appears to be a false crawl — turtle terminology for when a female comes to shore but circles around back to the Gulf of Mexico without nesting. False crawls can occur for a number of reasons: The turtle becomes disoriented by light, startled by humans or, perhaps, she couldn’t dig into the sand deeply enough.
Still, false crawls need to be documented.
Seamon, Lally and DeGiammario document the distance the turtle crawled with measuring tape, while Conrad traces two giant “X” marks in the sand with her foot to let other Turtle Watchers know they’ve documented the false crawl.
Note: Seamon and two other Turtle Watch volunteers returned to the site Friday and discovered that what they thought was a false crawl was, in fact, a nest.
7:19 — And then they hit pay dirt: The volunteers encounter what appears to be an actual nest at 5881 Gulf of Mexico Drive. There’s the body pit and the angel-wing marks that the turtle made with her front flippers, along with a mound of sand nearby.
7:27 — Seamon begins digging for eggs to confirm the nest exists.
7:35 — Seamon stumbles upon hidden treasure — i.e., the turtle’s eggs.
The volunteers then begin the process of documenting it.
Lally and Conrad each trace an “X” with their foot in the sand near the shoreline, while DeGiammario and Seamon mark the nest’s exact location with the GPS coordinator.
Then, Conrad begins hammering stakes into the sand around the nest, which warns beachgoers not to disturb it.
The volunteers also use a small triangle of markers to mark the nest further inland in a location parallel to the nest. That way, if there’s a storm like last year’s Tropical Storm Debby, which washed away most nest markers, officials will still know where to look for each nest.
As they mark the nest, Jeff Balcom and his daughter, Lucy, 6, who are visiting from Buffalo, N.Y., come over to check out the tracks. They just visited Mote Marine Aquarium the day before, and it’s Lucy’s first time seeing turtle tracks.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Balcom asks, as Lucy nods her head.
After the sun rises, Turtle Watchers usually see more people on the beach, many of whom want to know what they’re doing. Turtle Watchers use the encounters as educational opportunities, reminding beachgoers to turn out and shield lights for nesting season.
7:52 — The marking of the nest is complete.
8:11 — The Turtle Watch team reaches the Gulfside Road beach access, where Zone B volunteers marked another nest earlier in the morning. That means they’re done for the day.
In addition to patrolling for nests and picking up trash, the Turtle Watchers have gotten in a morning workout: They walked 1.5 miles.
8:21 — Seamon makes phone calls to Mote and Perrotta to tell them the final day’s tally: two false crawls and one nest in Zone B.
FALSE CRAWL: 1