Amelia Island Sea Turtle Nesting Bountiful 2010

Amelia Island Sea Turtle Nest Tracks North Beach

Amelia Island Sea Turtle Nest With Turtle Tracks North Beach

The number of sea turtle nests marked on Amelia Island during the 2010 season is 197 nests (as of September 12, 2010), more than double the nests marked last year.

Most are loggerhead turtles. However, a rare leatherback visited Amelia Island this year and nested (the world’s largest sea turtle), as well as several green turtles (also more unusual in this part of northeast Florida).

The video below shows some highlights of a live baby green turtle (i.e. hatchling) “rescued” September 5, 2010 in a sea turtle nest excavation in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. It was the sole survivor left behind who hadn’t managed to dig out with the others. This little one, rather than be released to the sea, went home with a Sea Turtle Watch volunteer for overnight observation.

Currently, the turtle eggs laid by adult female sea turtles in mid-July are hatching now 50 to 60 days later in September. Warmer temps (and we’ve had a very warm summer here on Amelia Island in northeast Florida), speeds up the cycle, with eggs hatching a bit sooner.

Patrolling the beachfront at dawn every day with diligence is the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch, a volunteer group dedicated to sea turtle conservation efforts. In the wee hours of the morning at day’s dawn, a special ritual occurs on Amelia Island beaches during sea turtle nesting season. Local volunteers are out scouring the shoreline while most of us are still asleep, searching for sea turtle tracks in the sand.

The female sea turtle typically comes ashore during the night and makes her way toward the dunes, trying to pass the high tide line. However, sometimes they dig their nests only about mid-way on the beach, so some nests erode away with the tides or storms. It is easy to identify sea turtle nests on the beach. They are clearly marked by the Sea Turtle Watch volunteers with yellow tape, posts and a sign warning folks not to disturb the nest.

The mature, female sea turtle (usually at least 20 years old), digs an egg cavity about a foot or two deep in the sand, and deposits her eggs, often around 100 or so. Once hatched, the tiny turtle hatchlings emerge from the nest, literally digging themselves out with tiny flippers.

Take a look at the data below (compiled from this group’s website), comparing the last two year’s nesting season.

Year

May Nests

June Nests

July Nests

August Nests

2010

15

93

68

10 thru mid-Aug

2009

9

47

25

7 thru mid- Aug

Tourist Tip: Experience a Sea Turtle Nest Excavation on Amelia Island

Amelia Island Florida Sea Turtle Nest Excavation

Amelia Island Florida Sea Turtle Nest Excavation

A special treat is to witness sea turtle nest excavation. It’s a unique and satisfying experience for the young and old alike. If you have children or grandchildren, they will both learn and love it (especially if some live baby hatchlings are uncovered in the nest). Much to the glee of onlookers who gather to see this miracle of nature, sometimes live baby turtles are unearthed in the nests, to joyous outbursts from the crowd. Baby sea turtles are buried treasure, indeed.

If you’re visiting Amelia Island during sea turtle season, be sure to make inquiries about possible sea turtle nest excavations. Sea Turtle Watch volunteers also give their time evenings. The excavations are typically done around 6:30 to 7:30 pm (check the excavation schedule on the Sea Turtle Watch website). If you’re a local resident, don’t let another sea turtle season go by without sharing in this wonderful experience. Also, every year Labor Day Weekend, a fundraiser, the Turtle Trot, is an event held on Amelia Island to benefit local sea turtles, read more about it here, “Amelia Island Turtle Trot — Walk, Run, Have Fun & Help Sea Turtles.”

Sunrise Sea Turtle Nest Amelia Island, Florida

Sunrise Sea Turtle Nest Amelia Island, Florida

Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch volunteers excavate the nest to make sure no turtle hatchling are left behind.  But they also record important data:  they count the shards (empty eggshells of hatched eggs), partially hatched eggs, and those eggs that remain unhatched. These are unfertilized eggs that look a bit like big ping pong balls.  Turtle volunteer groups do the same monitoring in beach towns along the southeastern coast of the U.S. There are lots of people dedicated to helping sea turtles survive.

Amelia Island’s nearby neighbor, Cumberland Island, Georgia, is a prime area of sea turtle nesting, being mostly undeveloped, protected National Seashore. “Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest barrier island, led the nesting [in the state of Georgia] this summer with 480 nests,” according to a September 4, 2010 article in Savannah Morning News. A bit south of Amelia Island, 230 loggerhead sea turtle nests were marked through late August in South Ponte Vedra Beach, according to Guana Reserve officials. There also are reports that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina has a record number of sea turtle nests this season. Thus, a bountiful nesting season, breaking records in some areas, appears to be the norm this year, along the southeastern U.S. coast.

As noted above, three types of sea turtles nest on Amelia Island beaches, loggerhead (the most predominant), green, and leatherbacks. Reportedly, genetic research indicates that the sea turtles nesting on Amelia Island are related to turtles in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina (and are a separate family from other Florida sea turtles).

The odds of sea turtle survival is daunting. Very few sea turtle hatchlings will survive into maturity. Hazards abound, both onshore and in the seas. Best case scenario, one of every 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive into adulthood according to scientific estimates (but some feel it‘s only one of 4,000, staggering odds). After about 20 years or so (and a journey often thousands of ocean miles away), the female turtle reaches maturity for breeding. Instinctively, the female sea turtle manages to return to the very beach of its birth more than two decades earlier, to dig a nest and “plant” its eggs. It’s one of nature’s miracles.

THREATS TO SEA TURTLE NESTS AND HATCHLINGS

The loss of habitat to development threatens the sea turtle nesting grounds and hatchlings, as well as artificial light on the beach from the beach homes and oceanfront resorts. When eggs hatch, the little turtle hatchlings move toward light. In perfect circumstances, it normally would be the natural moonlight. However, artificial lighting along the beach in contemporary times, confuses the hatchlings. They often head in the opposite direction inland into the dunes where they cannot survive. (For example, during the 2010 season, a recent report indicates that 171 Amelia Island sea turtle hatchlings were lost to lighting disorientation.)

Storms can cause beach erosion and wash away turtle nests. The presence of man on the beaches, activity, noise, flashlights, campfires, beach driving at night during turtle season, can all negatively impact the female sea turtles as well. A “false crawl” can result when a female turtle halts an attempt to nest. (For example, data indicates that there were 30 false crawls on Amelia Island the 2009 season through mid-August while in 2010 around 90 false crawls occurred during the same timeframe).

There’s also natural predators such as raccoons, ants, crabs, herons, armadillos and even dogs on the beach that dig into the nests for the eggs or kill hatchlings. Even the hatchlings that make it to sea are prey for fish and birds.

Sea turtles are ancient reptiles, dating back to the days when dinosaurs roamed Earth. They are “living fossils,” having survived millions of years, but now in the twenty-first century, considered a threatened species. Female sea turtles can proudly take their place as one of Mother Nature’s most worthy and remarkable seafarers, still burying their treasure on beaches today. Kudos to sea turtle volunteers for their efforts to help protect and sustain the species.

It’s now later in the second half of the sea turtle nesting season on Amelia Island (May 1 to October 31st each year).  Get out there and observe some coastal nature, before the season is over. Perhaps you’ll see some buried treasure uncovered.

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