Our primary responsibility as turtle patrollers is to monitor, document, and report on sea turtle activity for the state of Florida. From mid-April through October, each day from about dawn, CWC patrollers walk the Gulf beaches, primarily on Manasota Key, looking for evidence of sea turtle activity from the previous night. A secondary but also important responsibility is outreach.
Patrollers walk on assigned days and on assigned zones, or beach sections, most about a half-mile long. Most patrollers walk in pairs or in small groups.
Early in the season, we look for wide, vehicle-like tracks in the sand left by female sea turtles that crawl onto the beaches in search of suitable nest locations. Later on we also look for tiny tracks left by little hatchlings.
Of the seven species of sea turtles world-wide, three nest on Florida’s beaches. The predominant nester here is the loggerhead. Greens nest here in increasing numbers. Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest and rarest of the sea turtles, nest in Florida in very small numbers. Loggerheads and green sea turtles usually nest at night. In contrast, Kemp’s ridleys nest during the day, particularly very windy days.
Based on the large turtle tracks found, patrollers identify the species and visually determine whether the turtle nested. Sea turtles often return to the water without nesting. Causes for non-nesting emergences or “false crawls” include noise, artificial lights, and the presence of predators, dogs or people. Turtles also return to the sea for reasons known only to them. After recording the location and other details, we cross out false crawls (usually by drawing deep, obvious lines or X’s through them). This is done to avoid counting the same crawl again the following morning.
Sea turtles nest multiple times in a season at about 2-week intervals. They usually skip several seasons before nesting again.
After digging a hole or egg chamber, a sea turtle lays her eggs deep in the sand. She covers the eggs with her rear flippers and then flings sand backwards with her front flippers, covering the nest area. Though camouflaged, most nests are apparent to experienced patrollers. We visually identify nests and then mark them to facilitate data collection and to help beach users avoid disturbing them. After recording location, date, any obstructions encountered, and other data, we cross out nest tracks. As with false crawls, we do this to avoid double counting them.
About 2 months after the first nests are documented, and usually by the end of June, patrollers start to watch carefully for signs of hatchling emergence. Three days after emergence is noted, we inventory nest contents for all nests or for a percentage of nests, depending on the protocol for a particular zone. A three-day delay allows any “late bloomers” to emerge on their own. We record numbers of eggs hatched, unhatched, dead hatchlings, and so on. Live hatchlings still in a nest are released immediately to crawl unaided to the water. Inventories of green and Kemp’s ridley nests include collecting samples for DNA studies and other research.
In September and October, patrollers remove all materials from the beach and store them in preparation for the next season.
Procedures for nest marking and data collection may differ from zone to zone depending on state agency requirements for particular beaches and on the instructions of individual Principal Permit Holders, who supervise the work. CWC procedures may differ also from other monitoring programs in Florida and from those in other states.
We submit our data in end-of-season reports to the Florida Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). We are permitted for our beach work by the FWC.