Turtle nesting season starts early after nest found on St Augustine Beach

Turtle nesting season on NE Florida beaches traditionally starts May 1

By Rebecca Barry - Meteorologist

Sea Turtle nest roped off on St Augustine Beach

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nest was discovered early Sunday morning by a walker on St. Augustine Beach and reported to sea turtle patrol.

It came two weeks before sea turtle nesting season officially begins May 1. It runs through Oct. 31. 

St. Augustine Beach Sea Turtle Patrol volunteers marked off the area and it will be monitored by volunteers and county staff until the nest hatches. On May 1, St. Johns County staff will begin closing gates at 7:30 p.m. and reopening at 8 a.m. to allow for nesting sea turtles to have a safe nesting beach throughout the night.

Last year, volunteers recorded 540 nests with over 41,309 hatchlings produced, a 22% decrease from the 2017 season of 691 nests. The earliest recorded nest in 2018 was a loggerhead (Caretta caretta) on May 2 and leatherback on May 9. We also had 12 recorded leatherback nests, of which only five hatched.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, leatherback turtle nests are somewhat rare for Northeastern Florida, with the exception of a few nests on the west coast, leatherbacks nest almost exclusively on the east coast of Florida. In fact, about 50 percent of leatherback nesting occurs in Palm Beach County.

Leatherback sea turtles are named for their rubbery shell and are the largest sea turtles. Adults can weigh between 700 and 2,000 pounds and reach 4 to 8 feet in length.

Leatherback nesting in Florida occurs primarily from March through July. A female typically nests at intervals of two to three years, depositing multiple nests per season. Leatherbacks lay an average of 73 fertilized eggs about 25 yolkless eggs per clutch (Stewart et al., 2006). With the exception of a few nests on the west coast each year, leatherbacks nest primarily on the east coast of Florida. 

The leatherback is a fascinating and unique animal, even among sea turtles. It is larger, dives deeper, travels farther, and tolerates colder waters than any other sea turtle. Most leatherbacks average 6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the largest leatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds.

Leatherbacks look distinctively different from other sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields, leatherbacks are covered with a firm, leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs. They are usually black with white, pink, and blue splotches and have no claws on their flippers. Leatherbacks eat soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish, and their throat cavity and scissor-like jaws are lined with stiff spines that aid in swallowing this soft and slippery prey. Young leatherbacks in captivity can consume twice their weight in jellyfish daily.

True denizens of the deep, leatherbacks are capable of descending more than 3,000 feet and of traveling more than 3,000 miles from their nesting beach. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as far north as Alaska and Labrador. Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able to regulate their body temperature so that they can survive in cold waters. The leatherback is found in Florida's coastal waters, and a small number (from 30 to 60 a year) nest in the state.

What to do if you see a sea turtle nesting

According to the FWC, Summer is a busy time for Florida beaches with both people and sea turtles sharing the sand. Though turtle nesting and hatching usually happens in the middle of the night, it is very possible for humans to cross paths with nesting females or hatchlings on their way to the sea.

Should this happen to you, it is important to stay out of the sea turtle's way. Don't put your hands on or near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten or disorient them, causing a female to return to the ocean before finishing her nest, or misdirecting a hatchling away from the water.

Light can also cause a major disruption in the natural behavior of the turtles. Don't use any flashlights, flash photography or video equipment. This can cause a female to false crawl or lead a hatchling away from the water.

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