Sea Turtle Nest Monitoring
Every morning during nesting season we patrol St. Pete Beach starting half an hour before sunrise. We look for turtle tracks in the sand indicating a turtle has come ashore to lay her eggs. We also have a team patrolling Shell and Outback Keys each morning via boat. We locate the nest, mark the nest to protect it, and collect data. After 50-60 days of incubation, the nest hatches. Three days later, we conduct an inventory to gather additional data for FWC on the fate of the nest. Our volunteers also serve as ambassadors to visitors and local residents, teaching them about the work we do and how they can help.
Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage
Throughout the year we continue to help stranded sea turtles in our area to get to nearby rehabilitation facilities for care. Live strandings are rescued and transported to properly permitted rehabilitation facilities. Stranding data collected on a standardized reporting form include the date, species, location, carapace length and width, carcass condition, carcass disposition, and information on anomalies (e.g., entanglement, propeller damage, and fibropapillomas).
Community Outreach and Conservation
We work cooperatively with our local community to improve the condition of our beaches. Our goal is to make St. Pete Beach as turtle-friendly as possible while helping visitors and residents enjoy this great place. We conduct beach clean-ups, help local businesses switch to turtle-safe lighting and make other environmentally friendly changes, and work with local government and law enforcement to enhance and ensure the protection of sea turtles and their nests. Sea Turtle Trackers is proud to be a member of the Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition, working with other local environmental groups to reduce or eliminate the dependence on single-use plastics like straws and plastic bags.
We do a Turtle Tuesday Talk every Tuesday at the Guy Harvey Outpost Resort on St. Pete Beach. We also visit many schools throughout the year and participate in the Great American Teach In every fall. Sea Turtle Trackers takes every opportunity to educate visitors and residents on the importance of caring for our local ecosystem. Volunteers staff booths at events, we give away activity books for children and visit local community groups.
We have experienced speakers available to come talk with your students, clubs, associations, congregations, or other groups of interested sea turtle enthusiasts. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in having us present to your group.
Sea Turtle Patrol
"We ride at dawn..."
Each and every morning our dedicated volunteer patrollers hit the beach half an hour before sunrise! Often working in pairs, these early-bird volunteers are on the lookout for evidence of overnight nesting activity. Their eyes focused on the sand, they carefully scan the beach hoping to spot the tell-tale signs of overnight sea turtle activity on the beach. Female loggerhead sea turtles weigh around 250 lbs., and their bodies are designed for life in the ocean, not on land. They lumber up the beach, moving their front and rear flippers in alternating strides, carrying their heavy bodies landward in search of the perfect place to deposit their precious cargo. This exhausting journey leaves behind its mark in the form of wide trails of disturbed sand behind the female turtle. Affectionately referred to as "turtle tracks," these trails are the sign our volunteers are searching for -- a sign that nesting season has begun!
Early morning is the best time to spot these tracks. This is because there is usually less human traffic on the beach at night, so the tracks are pristine and not walked over or otherwise disturbed by daytime activities. The low angle of the sun also creates shadows in the sand that make tracks more visible. Most of St. Pete Beach is cleaned daily by beach raking that removes the seaweed and shells washed ashore by the most recent high tide. The line formed by these materials is called the wrack line, and it provides food, shelter, and stability to the beach and its animal inhabitants. It is important that we find any tracks before the rakers smooth out the beach, removing evidence of sea turtle emergences. When our patrollers spot the turtle tracks, they follow the tracks up the beach to see if they lead to a nest or a false crawl. False crawls occur when the female turtle emerges from the water to nest but encounters an obstruction (a man-made object left on the beach), is disturbed by noise, people, or light, or just doesn't approve of the conditions on the beach and returns to the water without laying eggs. She may try to nest again later that night, on a different part of the beach, or she could wait until the following night for another attempt. If she does not find a suitable nesting habitat in which to leave her eggs, she will release her fertilized eggs in the water where they cannot develop.
Some of the biggest factors negatively affecting sea turtle nesting on public beaches are beach obstructions and artificial lighting. Recreational equipment like kayaks, tents, and lounge chairs left on the beach after sunset, and even mounds or holes dug in the sand, can act as a barrier to a female turtle emerging to nest, or to tiny hatchlings trying to make their way down to the water after emerging from their nest. When sea turtles encounter these items, we see the evidence the next morning on patrol, take photos, and report our findings to the authorities. Artificial lighting from hotels, condos, and businesses confuse sea turtles, who use subtle natural light from the moon and stars reflected on the horizon to orient themselves to the water. When sea turtles become disoriented, they may travel the wrong direction on the beach, towards danger, or become exhausted and unable to reach the safety of the water, falling victim to beach predators like ghost crabs and birds. These disorientations are also reported to authorities and we work with local law enforcement to correct possible sources of artificial light to make the beaches darker and safer for sea turtles.
It takes a skilled eye and lots of experience to be able to determine if a crawl resulted in a nest or a false crawl. If a nest is found during patrol, staff members (permitted volunteers) locate the egg cavity containing 80-100 soft, ping-pong ball sized eggs. The volunteers then place stakes around the nest and mark with caution tape to prevent it from being walked or driven over during its incubation period. They also triangulate the position of the clutch using stakes placed behind the nest, measure the distances between the clutch and the vegetation and the waterline, and record all of this data in a field book. This data is reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who compiles it into the statewide nesting beach databases. From this point until the nest hatches in about 50-60 days, it will be monitored daily to ensure it remains safe and undisturbed.
When a nest "goes live," about 45 days after it was laid, we assess the beach conditions surrounding the nest and determine if the nest will require protection from the threat of disorientation. If there is an artificial light source near the nest that cannot be remedied by the time the nest nears its expected hatch date, the nest is fitted with a small, black, mesh netting called a restraining cage. These cages prevent hatchlings, confused by white lights on the beach, from crawling to their deaths. Volunteers sit with these nests each night, ready to collect hatchlings and release them in a safer area when they hatch. Luckily, over the years St. Pete Beach has become much more turtle friendly, and environmentally-conscious businesses and homeowners are good about turning off their lights during nesting season or replacing the bulbs with lower wavelength red or amber lights, which do not affect the turtles. Because of this, we use restraining cages very sparingly and most of our nests hatch naturally without any human interference!
Our monitoring does not end once the nest hatches. Several days after the hatchlings have emerged, volunteers excavate the contents of the egg chamber in order to count the number of hatched and unhatched eggs in the clutch. These inventories provide important data about nest success rates and the results are reported to FWC at the end of the season.
Our morning patrols are not just about the turtles... they are a great opportunity for us to be stewards of the beach environment. We collect garbage, knockdown mounds and fill in holes in the sand, and educate locals and visitors alike about sea turtle nesting and the obstacles to their survival. Many people we encounter on the beach are fascinated by the work we do and are inspired to become environmental stewards too! If you're up early and walking on St. Pete Beach, stop us and say hello - we always enjoy meeting fellow turtle-lovers!
Help Make Our Beaches Safer
for Sea Turtles
Questions About Turtle Patrol
I see you patrol the beach each morning at dawn. What exactly do you do?
Sea Turtle Trackers, under FWC permit, patrol each and every day of turtle season (April – October) beginning one-half hour before sunrise. Usually in a team of two, we walk or drive the 5.8 kilometres of St Pete beach searching for turtle tracks that will lead us to a nest made during the previous night. We also patrol the shoreline of Shell Key nature preserve and Outback Key which is only accessible by boat. When we spot a nest, we mark it with stakes and tape, and measure its location, and, if necessary, may cover it with a cage. We record this information as we are required to report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). In addition to looking for new nests, we check the marked nests every day.
Can anyone do this, or do you need some sort of license or permit?
Sea turtles are also protected under Florida statutes. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC,) in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), issues permits for activities involving marine turtles in Florida. All activities relating to marine turtles must be authorized under subsection 379.2431 (1), Florida Statutes. See 68E-1 Marine Turtle Permit Rule. To qualify for a marine turtle permit, the applicant must have the appropriate knowledge and experience, and demonstrate that the proposed activity adds to the conservation of marine turtles. Permit Holders must adhere to the Florida Marine Turtle Conservation Handbook. Bruno Falkenstein is the authorized Marine Turtle Permit Holder for our area.
For more information, see FWC’s website page on sea turtles: http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/.
When is sea turtle season? What does STT do in the ‘off-season?’
We patrol from April through end of October each year. Most nests are laid in May – July and hatch by September. There is always plenty to do! STT runs educational events and beach clean-ups year-round. During the winter months, we also fundraise, prepare equipment, and run training sessions for the next season.
How do you know there is a nest?
Each morning during turtle season, before the beach rakers and visitors arrive, we patrol the beach looking for the tracks of any momma turtles who laid their nests during the night. With our trained eyes we follow the distinctive tracks to find the tell-tale signs of the nest. We use visual clues to determine whether the turtle actually made a nest or if it was a 'false crawl' (non-nesting emergence). In some cases, (for instance, if we will have to cage the nest) we may need to gently brush away some of the sand to locate the top of the egg chamber.
Why do you mark the nests on the beach? Why do some have black wire cages?
When we spot a nest, we mark it with stakes and tape to protect it from the beach traffic like the police, beach raker, garbage trucks, and visitors who might inadvertently damage a nest. This also helps us to find it easily and keep an eye on it to ensure it is left undisturbed by humans. Some nests require more protection for the hatchlings and these have black wire ‘restraining’ cages. A restraining cage is used in areas with lots of artificial (that is, man-made) lighting shinning onto/near the beach. This lighting can ‘disorient’ or distract the turtles and they may crawl towards the human light source instead of the Gulf of Mexico. Hatchlings that ‘disorient’ usually die. Just before a nest is ready to hatch, 45 days after being laid, if needed, we will place a black wire cage over it to prevent hatchling from going in the wrong direction. A volunteer must ‘close the cage’ each evening at sunset and we open the cages each morning on beach patrol.
If I see a nesting sea turtle, what do I do?
If you encounter a nesting female, immediately call us or the police who will contact us. You should stay a good distance (20 feet) behind her and outside of her sight line. Never use flash photography or attempt to touch her.
Can I touch the turtles / hatchlings? When they hatch can I help them get to the water? What do I do if I find disoriented hatchlings making for Gulf Blvd?
Sea turtles and their hatchlings are protected by Federal law and it is a violation of the law to touch, feed or interfere in any way with these creatures. It is our objective for the nesting and hatching process to be as natural as possible and we only intervene if the hatchlings disorient or are caged. Only those operating under a State FWC permit are allowed to interact with the turtles and their hatchlings. Disoriented hatchlings are those moving away from the Gulf towards artificial light/Gulf Blvd into the dunes, condos, parking lots or streets. If you are unsure a hatchling is disoriented or in trouble, call the phone number below and continue observe the hatchling from a distance until assistance arrives. If you see any disoriented hatchlings on the beach please call us immediately at 727-744-6524 or 727-501-5581 for instructions. Do not put hatchlings in any water, feed them or return them to the ocean. You may be instructed to place them in a bucket with some sand and cover the bucket with a towel; we'll have one of our volunteers come get them from you. Thank you for keeping an eye out for these turtle babies. Note: it is illegal for individuals to keep sea turtle or hatchlings, so call us right away. Or call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Division of Law Enforcement at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC from your cell phone
Do you relocate nests or turtles?
Under FWC guidelines, turtle nests are only rarely relocated in extreme circumstances to avoid total destruction of the eggs.
What area(s) does Sea Turtle Trackers cover? What if I find turtles on beach areas outside Sea Turtle Trackers area of responsibility?
Sea Turtle Trackers holds the permit for St Pete Beach and the nature preserve of Shell Key Island. For any turtle issues outside our area call the FWC 24 hour hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.