A Day in the Life of Longboat Key Turtle Watch Volunteer

A Day in the Life of a Longboat Key Turtle Watch Volunteer

Interested?? Join us just for fun...you might love it, and become a new volunteer!!

Around the time when the snowbirds have made the trip back North, and are in the midst of planting spring flowers, and picking up yards strewn with winter debris, some "year rounders" are setting their alarm clocks for 5:15 a.m. to prepare for a 6:30 a.m. beach walk! Longboat Key Turtle Watch members are among this group. May 1st marks the official start of Turtle nesting season, and local volunteers accept the "Call to Duty" for The Longboat Key Turtle Beach Patrol.

In early May, late at night, mother turtles start to come ashore to bury about 120 ping-pong ball sized eggs. Most of these moms on Florida's West Coast are of the loggerhead species, so named because of their large head. These turtles average 275 lbs, and drag themselves up the beach, to a location where they feel would be a good place to dig a nest. Once found, they use their rear flippers to dig a hole about 1 foot deep, 8 inches in diameter, and deposit their eggs. Then, using all their flippers, the moms fill the hole and completely cover the nest leaving it hidden. This starts the 45-70 day incubation period. After this 2 hour process, the tired moms make their way back to the Gulf, leaving a nest full of eggs to all the dangers of nature.

Enter the "Turtle Beach Patrol" armed with a quiver of marking sticks, brightly colored tape, measuring tape, official nest recording forms and reusable garbage bags. The patrols are made up of 2 or more people that walk about 2 miles of beach looking for clues that a mom may have come ashore to lay her eggs. The clue are tracks coming from the sea, winding up the beach to an area of scattered sand and then circling back to the water. These tracks, with their distinctive flipper marks on either side, is made when the turtle drags herself up the beach, and the scattered sand indicates where a nest may have been dug and then covered up. The patrol volunteer carefully evaluates the clues in an effort to determine if the nest is "Real" or a "False Crawl". If it is determined, it is a nest, it is marked with 2 or 4 stakes, the stakes are tied with bright colored tape and the distance from the nest to the water and to the grass line is measured and recorded on an official form. The stakes are marked with necessary information to monitor the nest. The data from the forms is entered into a data base and the forms are given to Mote Marine Laboratory. Mote collects these forms and the data is compiled in an effort to keep track of the ever changing turtle population and nesting trends.

Patrol volunteers also pick up garbage as they walk their assigned beach, typically filling a couple bags with bottles, cups and other beach garbage. This daily activity continues with more nests being found and marked and existing nests being checked to see if raccoons, ants, crabs, dogs or even people have dug into the nest for the eggs. Some nests may be "caged" to keep night prowlers from digging down into the nest.

Excitement among the patrollers starts to build about a week before the first nest is due to hatch. At this time the nests are checked to see if the turtles have hatched and dug themselves out leaving an empty space where the sand has fallen down. Patrollers search and hope to find telltale baby turtle tracks that lead to the sea and not toward beach lights. Some of these 100 hatchlings are eaten by birds or crabs on the trip to the water, and once in the water they may become a meal for waiting fish. The survivors swim for a few miles out to the sargasm line where they will spend their early years. One out of 1000 will survive the journey and females return to Florida in 25+ years to lay her eggs on the same beach where she was born!

Sometimes, the patrollers excavate nests three days after a nest hatches. The contents are counted and the eggs are categorized into groups and counted: the eggs that didn't hatch, the ones that did, and the ones that partially hatched. All this information is saved and categorized by an LBK volunteer, and then given to Mote. If there are any live turtles in the nest, they are put in a large bucket and the bucket covered with a towel. Then, 20 minutes after the sun goes down and the birds have gone to nest, they are released about 20 feet from the waters edge. This activity is usually watched by excited spectators and patrollers as the little turtles magically make their way to the water, a process that implants a natural homing device in them that will guide the females back to that exact beach.

This patrol cycle continues until usually mid-October when the last nest has hatched. The official end of the Turtle nesting season is October 31st. Even though the season comes to an end, LBKTW spends much of the off-season participating in educational outreach events throughout the community.

LBK Turtle Watch also offers public and educational walks every Saturday in June and July (weather permitting). If you are interested in joining us and see what turtle patrol is all about, please join us at 7:00am at 4795 Gulf of Mexico Drive on Saturdays during June and July.