Turtle Time: Watch Amelia Island Sea Turtle Nest Dig

Visitors of the night, sea turtles land on Amelia Island to deposit eggs and venture back to sea. The first two sea turtle nests of the 2014 season were rare leatherbacks, the world’s largest turtle.

Visitors of the night, female sea turtles land on Amelia Island to deposit eggs and venture back to sea. Summer’s sea turtle nesting season on Amelia Island means a wonderful opportunity presents itself to learn about these amazing creatures and witness nest excavations. Turtle digs usually begin by mid-July and continue through September.

Digging into nests to record “success” data occurs after nature has run its course and the nests have hatched on their own schedule. This typically happens after a period averaging 55 to 60 days for Amelia Island’s most abundant nester, loggerheads.

However, the first two sea turtle nests of the season this year were the much more rare leatherbacks, the world’s largest turtle (eggs deposited on May 2nd and May 12, 2014). Additionally, a third leatherback nest was marked on June 11, 2014 by Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch volunteers. For size perspective, leatherbacks weigh between 500 to 2,000 pounds (some weighing as much as a small automobile), reaching 4 to 8 feet in length. Consider that a classic 1967 Volkswagen Beetle weighed 1,850 pounds. Unless seen in person, it’s hard to imagine turtles of this scale. An encounter with one would certainly be a jaw-dropping moment.

leatherback sea turtle photo
Leatherback Sea Turtle (photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Southeast Region)

Thus, the first nest excavation this year on Amelia Island will be a leatherback nest. Leatherback eggs typically incubate for average of 55 to 75 days, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Southeast Region. (However, it can reportedly take as long as 85 days.) The count down is on for Amelia Island’s nest #1 of the 2014 sea turtle nesting season. Any day could be the day baby turtles emerge. UPDATE: (As of July 17, 2014, the nest has not emerged, yet. Fingers crossed there are no egg fertility issues). UPDATE #2: HAPPY ENDING! Leatherback hatchlings were helped to the ocean by Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch volunteers on July 24, 2014.

“Last of the Ancient Reptiles”

It’s a unique treat to watch a sea turtle nest excavation. Residents and visitors can learn about the earth’s wondrous sea turtles who have survived since the Dinosaur Age — a remarkable feat, to say the least. This is an ancient species that has managed to survive an estimated 200 million years, but in contemporary times, is listed as “threatened” (loggerheads) to “endangered” (leatherbacks).

The majority of Amelia Island’s nesting sea turtles are loggerheads (with occasional green turtle nests some years). To be visited by the enormous leatherback sea turtles is not the norm in this northeast Florida neck of the woods. Historically, the majority of the state’s leatherback nesting grounds is much further south. Some years zero leatherbacks come ashore to nest on Amelia Island (like last year in 2013). However, in 2012, a remarkable six leatherbacks nested here.

Sea Turtle Nest ID, Excavation Process, Data Gathering

Under the direction of Mary P. Duffy, founder of the Amelia Sea Turtle Watch and dedicated leader of sea turtle volunteers, the beaches are scoured for the telltale sign that a mother sea turtle has come ashore — her turtle tracks. These volunteers rise daily before dawn, head to the beach and explore the shoreline. When tracks are discovered, they determine whether the nesting attempt was successful (eggs deposited) vs. the “U-turn”, i.e., a false crawl. Once validated, the nest is marked and monitoring continues until it becomes clear that the nest has “erupted.” This means the tiny turtle hatchlings have emerged out of the nest and hopefully headed to the sea (rather than lured by artificial lighting from homes and hotels along the beachfront).

Next, the nest is excavated by trained volunteers who record nest data (and help out any straggler babies who didn’t make it out of the nest on their own). Generally, three days goes by from emergence to excavation, to allow nature to take its course so as many hatchlings as possible evacuate without man’s assistance.

Looking back the past two years, data recorded by the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch and published on their website (they monitor about 8 miles of beachfront), indicates the following nest counts: 167 loggerhead nests in 2012 (157 in 2013); 2 green nests in 2012 (2 greens in 2013); and 6 leatherback nests in 2012, but none last year in 2013. Be sure to check out the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch website for sea turtle news, nest counts and details of what data is recorded, a measurement of nest “success” rate. Check the website daily July through September to see nest excavation schedule .

How to Help Florida’s Coastal Wildlife Survive

Besides being sea turtle nesting season here at the coast, realize it’s also shorebird and seabird nesting season and the birds need the public’s help, too. The best way to help coastal wildlife is good beach etiquette — being conscientious and respectful of wildlife habitat at the beach. Currently, Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers are nesting on Amelia Island.
Sensitive bird nesting areas where visitors need to proceed with caution are on the south end of the island within Amelia Island State Park (and the bordering area of Omni Amelia Island Plantation), as well as on the north end at Fort Clinch State Park.

Please keep your distance from roped off areas. But realize that some birds nest outside the marked boundaries so watch where you step (baby birds can also dart across the beach). If birds are flying around and sounding off, you may be invading their nesting area.

Beach Etiquette: 5 Tips To Help Sea Turtles & Birds Survive At Shore

1. Follow the “carry on carry off rule” (whatever beach gear brought for the day goes home at night, plus all trash removed)
2. Fill in holes and trenches dug in the sand.
3. Property owners and visitors staying at oceanfront lodging should turn off outdoor lights facing the beach and keep curtains and blinds closed at night (artificial light can disorient sea turtles).
4. Refrain from bringing dogs to the beach, especially during nesting season. (But if you must, keep them leashed at all times.) However, NO DOGS ARE ALLOWED on the beaches within Fort Clinch State Park and Amelia Island State Park).
5. While not all birds on the beach are nesting, don’t disturb RESTING birds either (and teach children not to do so). Keep as wide a distance as possible from birds you see on the beach. (If you send them up in flight, you’ve encroached their space.)

If you find a dead, sick, or injured sea turtle, or see someone disturbing sea turtle nests or nesting birds, please call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922), call #FWC or *FWC on your cell phone, or text [email protected]

Find out more about “sharing the shore with wildlife” and watch Florida Audubon video tips. Also see be a “Beach Hero” brochure at the city of Fernandina Beach website.