Record Number Nests Thru June 30, 2019
The number of sea turtle nests recorded through June 30, 2019 by the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch (AISTW) has soared past the all-time previous record, and by quite a lot. This season’s nest count is 221, compared to the previous highest number of 148 nests set back in 2016, for the same time period through June 30th. The count of 221 is the highest number through the month of June since the AISTW began reporting data to the state 30 years ago in 1989.
Sea turtle nesting season continues through the summer, so the final nest count won’t be known for few more months. But the odds certainly look good that the 2019 nesting season will go down in the history books as a remarkable one.
Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch
Each season, sea turtle nesting data recorded by Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch is reported to the state by the volunteer group’s president and founder, Mary P. Duffy. The segment of the beachfront monitored by the group is identified as the “AISTW beach” for Florida’s “Index Nesting Beach Survey.” This covers a specific area of the beach, about 8 miles, that stretches between the boundaries of Amelia Island’s two state parks located at the tips of the island.
When also adding an additional 41 state park nests (located within Fort Clinch State Park on the north end, and Amelia Island State Park on the south end), the total Amelia Island nests from tip to tip through June 30, 2019 is 262.
The pace of nesting this season has Amelia Island’s Sea Turtle Watch volunteers super busy at the seaside. Volunteers rise early, walking their assigned section of the beach at sunrise, looking for turtle tracks in the sand (pictured below). Once a nest is located, they dig around in the sand to find the exact place of the nest cavity and confirm eggs have actually been deposited. Then a single egg is removed to be sent to a lab for genetic testing. The DNA research study is being conducted by the University of Georgia. The mother sea turtle is identified so her particular nesting habits can be followed. The volunteers also mark the nest with stakes, pounding them into the beach, and add the yellow boundary tape. Florida is hot and muggy in summertime, even in the wee hours of the morning. Performing these physical tasks, especially when there’s no sea breeze, can be a workout.
Three Decades Of Florida Sea Turtle Data
Back in 1989, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) began the “Index Nesting Beach Survey,” the start of collecting standardized data along the Sunshine State’s beaches to help identify nesting trends over time. From this starting point 30 years ago, sea turtle nesting data has been recorded at various beach sites around the state. This standardized data collection at various beach sites is only a sampling, covering about 30% of the length of Florida’s extensive shoreline throughout the state. According to the FWC, “researchers do not yet understand fully what drives fluctuations in annual nest count. The observed pattern may even be part of a long-term cycle but many more years of standardized nest counts are needed to assess this hypothesis.”
Watch Nest Excavations This Summer
The numerous nests this year also means that the summer of 2019 will have plenty of opportunities to observe a sea turtle nest excavation. These turtle nest digs occur three days after the nest naturally erupts, when the hatchlings depart as a group on their own. (More info about watching nest excavations is further below.)
Hatchlings “Imprint” on Birth Beaches
A fascinating fact is that the baby sea turtles “imprint” as they make their first crawl from the nest to the ocean. The female hatchlings will actually return to the beaches of their birth when they reach maturity, to lay their nests. For loggerheads (Florida’s most abundant nesting species), they come back to birth beaches around 30 years later. An amazing feat, after swimming the seas for thousands of miles, including through international ocean waters.
Female sea turtles arrive on beaches during the night, dig nests and usually depart before sunrise. The hatchlings typically emerge at night, as well. Thus, seeing sea turtles on the beach in daylight is not a common occurrence. But if, in rather rare circumstances, you happen to come upon them, day or night, stay back and observe, and do not pick up the hatchlings.
An Unforgettable Emergence
It just so happens a rare occurrence unfolded at the Scott Road beach access on Amelia Island the evening of July 4, 2019, in the midst of fireworks and crowds on the beachfront. On the busiest night of the year at the seashore, a sea turtle nest erupted. Tiny hatchlings — perhaps around 100 or so — poured out of a nest and made their way to the ocean, crawling along the beach in the glow of fireworks and loud pops. Right place, right time, some lucky beach goers celebrating Independence Day were awe struck. What an amazing coastal treat to witness! And quite a grand finale, the baby sea turtles seemingly out-shined the fireworks, especially for excited kids.
“Against All Odds”
The odds of a baby sea turtle surviving is daunting. Very few hatchlings will reach maturity. Hazards abound, both natural predators and man made. Best case scenario, only 1% to 3% of sea turtle hatchlings will survive into adulthood, according to scientific estimates.
Sea turtles, depending on the species, are considered either “threatened” or “endangered,” and protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act. It is “illegal to harm, harass, or kill any sea turtles, their eggs, or hatchlings” according to the FWC.
Nest Incubation About 2 Months
A female sea turtle usually lays more than one nest during a nesting season, and then skips a year or so — nesting every two to three years. They deposit about 80 to 120 eggs per nest, according to FWC data. Then, after a period of about 50 to 60 days, the nests hatch. Most of the hatchlings usually depart for the sea on their own. But sometimes a few stragglers remain buried in the nest. They are then freed by the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch during nest excavations. Watching a nest dig is a popular, educational activity for adults and kids alike.
The Sea Turtle Watch volunteer excavates the nests to take inventory of what’s inside, such as counting the number of empty egg shells and eggs that didn’t develop. AISTW volunteers are a wealth of knowledge and educate the audience that gathers and also answer questions from onlookers.
2019 Nest Excavation Schedule
The sea turtle nesting season on Amelia Island runs from May 1st, through October 31st. The earliest laid nests typically start to hatch in July. The first two nest excavations of the 2019 season have been scheduled during the second week of July 2019. (See more sea turtle news and info about watching a sea turtle nest excavation this summer).
Also watch short video below, see tiny hatchlings, featuring an FWC biologist describing Florida’s nest monitoring program.