Florida’s beaches may be deserted by humans, but sea turtles are now enjoying the sand as the nesting season flourishes without the disturbance.
Near Eckerd, loggerhead sea turtles are prominent. Their season usually begins in May, however this year there have been some early sightings along the west coast of Florida.
“Maybe the water temperatures are going up faster than usual,” Professor Emeritus of Biology Peter Meylan said. “And I think that seems to be a cue that they're ready to start nesting.”
Meylan and his wife Anne have been monitoring sea turtles for most of their lives.
“One of the things that we're doing right now is reorganizing a lot of pictures from years and years. And I mean we're reliving our lives and a lot of pictures here are from sea turtle beaches,” Meylan said.
Junior Sabrina Sorace, a former intern for the Mote Marine Lab’s Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program, says that Mote has not seen too many sea turtles yet. However, on April 20, they had their first loggerhead nest of the season.
“[Florida] is one of the key areas nest for especially loggerhead turtles. They're mostly known for nesting in Florida and so are a lot of the green sea turtles, and then, especially on the east coast are the leatherbacks,” Sorace said.
Leatherback sea turtles begin their nesting season in January, and they are even more common during this month of April.
COVID-19 is making things complicated for the sea turtle monitoring. Because of social distancing guidelines that don't allow people to be closer than six feet from each other, patrols of volunteers are canceled. These patrols usually find where mother sea turtles nested, mark and record the location and determine if the eggs need to be relocated for safety. According to their Facebook, Sea Turtle Trackers in St. Petersburg has suspended all foot patrols.
“I think some of it can still go on and some of it won't go on depending on what the local rulings are,” Meylan said. “If you have lots of people walking, it’s going to be tricky.”
On the other hand, with fewer people on the beaches, sea turtles may be more successful in their nesting.
“Once a turtle sees a human, and even if they haven't started nesting, they'll leave and they won't try again that night,” Sorace said. “So probably with less people, there will be more chances for them to completely cover their nest than if they were to get halfway and then disrupted.”
To Eckerd’s north, Clearwater Beach had a unique visitor just a few weeks ago, according to BayNews9: a Kemp’s Ridley. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are one of the rarer, more endangered species that isn’t seen often on Florida’s coast.
Meylan thinks that Kemp’s Ridleys that nest on beaches like Clearwater are from a head starter program in Texas. Sea turtles have natal homing patterns, meaning they return to nest where they were born. However, in a head starter program, they are born and raised in a facility where they grow up to be released. Once they grow to a certain size, sea turtles are more likely to survive compared to their smaller hatchling life stage.
“Kemp’s Ridleys are nesting in places where they never nested previously, which in a sense is a good outcome,” Meylan said.
The “lost year” refers to the years after a sea turtle is born and swims out to sea. This is a difficult part of the life cycle of sea turtles to study, so people do not know much about what goes on in the juvenile life stages of sea turtles.
“After being headstarted, they didn't do what a wild sea turtle would do, which would be to hatch on its natal beach, swim out with waves and go right into the lost year. A whole bunch of the cues that they might accumulate over their early history, those cues are missing,” Meylan said.
With this lack of information about their early life, researchers focus on what they do know to help these endangered species, which is to ensure that their nesting is successful.
“It's important to protect our beaches, so there can be more babies,” Sorace said.