Turtle season off to slow, but steady start

■ BY SUE ERWIN     IMG_5966

A group of dedicated volunteers inspect Gasparilla Island beaches before sunrise each morning to track the nesting activities of loggerhead and green sea turtles. But the cooler stretch of weather this season seems to have affected usual patterns.

Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association patroller Melissa Csank said turtle season is off to a slower start this year, probably because the water temperature has been cooler than it was last year at this time. “We have nearly 50 percent less activity (false crawls and nests) compared to this time last year.

Oddly, however, green turtle activity has increased. Usually greens start nesting in June, but this year they started early. We have three nests on the island already, compared to zero at this time last year,” Csank said. Volunteers look for flipper tracks from turtles that might have visited the beach overnight to make a nest. A new nest will take around 60 days for the hatchlings to emerge. The Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association has switched to a biodegradable tape used around the nests this season. The tape was donated by BGSTA board members Melissa LaHurd and Bettie Beall. Should a storm wash out a nest this year, the tape will quickly decompose, rather than becoming beach debris. Csank said that on May 22, 2016, a loggerhead turtle was stranded on zone 7 (between 3rd and 4th streets).

“It was spotted and reported by someone from The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club and Dr. Jeff Humbarger, the patroller of that zone. With the help of the Boca Grande Fire Department, the turtle was transported to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota for rehabilitation. He was named “Tucker B” and appears to be recovering well,” Csank said. You can check the status of the recovery progress at https://mote.org/hospital/patient/tucker-b.

It takes a skilled team when it comes to moving a sick or injured turtle from the beach to the turtle hospital at Mote Marine. Luckily, Boca Grande Firefighters have a “sea turtle sling” that was donated by island resident Grace Harvey, which greatly aids in moving the animals. The sling, according to firefighters, has been used numerous times during the years they have had it. About a week prior to that stranding, a dead loggerhead washed up near 13th Street. It was found on May 14, 2016. In anticipation of a busy Memorial Day holiday weekend, extra patrol members were on duty. No instances of tampering with nests were reported.

The turtle patrol members would like to remind beachgoers to please take your trash with you when you leave the beach, and pick up any trash that others may have left. It’s also important to fill in holes in the sand and knock down any sand castles that might interfere with a turtle trying to make her way to a nesting spot. Also, keep your lights off when you’re at the beach and don’t leave things like beach chairs, toys or umbrellas overnight. Remember that pets can also be a threat. They may run after and harass turtles or dig up nests and harm hatchlings. A tiny sea turtle hatchling is about the size of a ping-pong ball. Once a new nest is discovered, patrol members excavate it and count each egg.

The information is then sent to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where it is entered in a national database. These data help track the health and activities of the species.

Linda Soderquist is the State permit holder for Little Gasparilla Island. She also performs sea turtle patrol. Soderquist said there has been an ongoing problem with wildlife predators on the island, and it’s continually getting worse. “Coyotes will follow a turtle as she makes her way up the beach, wait for her to lay the eggs and then dig them out and eat them,” she said. Bobcats and armadillos pose more threats to the turtles. To combat the problem, patrol members are installing self-releasing screens around the nests. The screens have a 2 x 2-inch opening in them so the hatchlings can easily get out. But armadillos will dig under the screen to get to the eggs. Soderquist said she can always tell when bobcats attack a nest because of the size of their footprints.

“And they usually only eat a few eggs and then leave the rest exposed,” she said. But the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. “If they dredge Stump Pass, it’s possible they’ll do some predator control, but the bottom line is that we’re going to have to learn to live with them, because they are here to stay,” Soderquist said.

For more information on this organization, visit the Little Gasparilla Island Turtles and Shorebirds Facebook page. At the end of May there were a total of 37 nests on Little Gasparilla Island. Please report any suspicious activity or injured turtles to the FWC’s 24-hour hotline by calling 888-404-3922. More volunteers are always needed. For more information, go to bocagrandeseaturtles.org.