Sometimes, turtles arrive before May 1, but that may not happen this year with chillier Gulf waters.
Mid-April is the eve of turtle season, but like kids who dig into presents on Christmas Eve, nesting turtles sometimes dig into the sand before their season officially starts on May 1.
Turtle patrol walks by the Longboat Key Turtle Watch actually begin on April 15 and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium starts keeping an eye on local beaches then, too. Longboat Key Turtle Watch Vice President Cyndi Seamon said that when she first started doing walks years ago, the patrol date was May 1, when turtle season begins, but as waters have gotten warmer, turtles have started nesting earlier. It’s been chillier longer this year, so that probably means turtles won't likely reach the beach until nearly the end of the month.
“That might cause turtles to not come ashore quite so soon because they need those warmer waters,” Mote senior biologist Melissa Berhhard said. “We think that the sea surface temperatures is one of the cues they use to trigger them to start nesting. So, a chillier ocean might delay the start of the season, but it shouldn't really change the number of turtles that are ready to nest … we'll still have nesting in April.”
Though public walks are still off-limits because of COVID-19, Seamon said folks are eager to get back onto the early morning walks. There are more than 50 volunteers on the LBKTW list for this year, Seamon said.
One of those new volunteers is town code enforcement officer Chris Kopp. He started in July last year, so this is his first full season here. After a few months of learning on his feet, he’s all in on turtle protection. Two things he’s implementing this year are a 24-hour turnaround time on addressing reports of violations and tagging furniture out of code with the turtle ordinance to hopefully educate short-term visitors about the importance of turtle protection.
“It could be a full time job,” Kopp said of turtle protection duties. “I'm the only code enforcement officer so I can't just forget all the other duties of enforcing all of our short term rentals stuff and grass getting long, but I will say that the priority does kind of shift to turtle protection.”
Priorities shift during the season, too, Kopp learned. In the beginning, when nesting mothers are coming ashore, the main focus is taking care of obstructions such as chairs. As babies make their way out of the nests, the focus becomes more on lighting to avoid disorientations.
“Those are all things that everyone can help with, especially if you live near the beach, like turning your lights off and keeping your trash put away, to reduce raccoons from hanging out,” Bernhard said. “But even if you don't live directly on the beach, you can always support the code enforcement officers and when you go to the beach, you can clean up trash.”
One thing volunteers will have to work around is the dredging projects. On Greer Island, Seamon said volunteers will have to move nests before 9 a.m. daily. Moving nests happens annually for reasons such as storm protection, but there will be more of it this year.
Though it’s hard to predict turtle behavior, Bernhard thinks nesting numbers might be up from 2020. Different crops of turtles nest in different years, but green turtles have a reliably up and down pattern. Last year was down. The most common turtle to see on Longboat beaches is the loggerhead. So far, there have been no turtles spotted on Longboat beaches.
“They take a few years off in between, and so I'm expecting this year to mirror more what we saw in 2019, which was our record year,” Bernhard said. “So I'm expecting a pretty big year for us.”
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