Sea turtle nesting season extends from May 1st through Oct. 31st. Beginning April 1st, Clearwater Marine Aquarium patrols a 26 mile stretch of beach throughout Pinellas County. Our morning patrols reach the beach just before sunrise 7 days a week. Initially, our teams of nearly 175 volunteers, staff and interns search along the high tide line for evidence of sea turtle nesting activity namely, marks in the sand left by crawling females. Once tracks are located, we determine whether there is a nest present or if it was a non-nesting emergence, AKA false crawl. We mark the nests and collect data from each site such as distance from high tide line, distance from beach vegetation, GPS coordinates and other measurements used to help locate the egg chamber.
As incubation times range between 50 and 60 days, we begin to look for hatching activity 45 days after our first nest discovery. Hatching activity is identified by tracks emerging from the nest sites. We also extend our beach patrol coverage throughout the night to monitor nests and release hatchling as soon as they emerge. Due to the dense population of Pinellas County, we have significant issues with artificial lighting causing hatchling disorientation events. To help hatchlings in areas with problem lighting, we use restraining cages to keep the hatchlings from wandering off in the wrong direction. After a nest has hatched we wait at least 72 hours then excavate the nest and do an inventory of its contents to determine hatching success.
Generally we find our first nest of the season in early to mid May and the females will continue nesting until the middle of August. Primarily, we encounter loggerheads nesting on our beaches but on rare occasions have encountered Kemp’s ridleys or green sea turtles.
We report our annual nesting data to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Pinellas County. To FWC, we report to false crawls, disorientation events, obstruction events, predation and vandalism. To the county, we also include weekly escarpment surveys, lighting surveys and weather data.