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Turtle patrol gets busy during nesting season

 Summer sea turtle season is right around the corner. Starting in May, sea turtles – including loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles and, very rarely, leatherback sea turtles – will come ashore on Florida’s coastlines and barrier islands to nest. A lucky few visitors and residents might catch a glimpse of these mothers-to-be during their brief return to shore.

Perhaps a more common summertime scene for folks in Franklin County is the St. George Island Volunteer Turtle Patrol. Easily identified by their emblematic ocean-blue shirts, this volunteer group from Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) scouts the beaches in search of fresh turtle tracks to observe and chart. They are often seen up to their elbows in the sand or hauling flagging tape to the next nest in need of marking.

This patrol is a long-established and well-known part of ANERR’s sea turtle monitoring program. Sea turtles aren’t coming home only to St. George Island to nest; their second-favorite stretch of Franklin County is the nine miles of undeveloped beach on Little St. George Island, which lies between St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge and the island

As the 2021 nesting season approaches, ANERR volunteers are reminiscing on the successes of the 2020 season, especially the nesting territory of Little St. George Island. Last year was a steady year for nesting sea turtles, with Little St. George home to 156 observed sea turtle nests, with 18 nests laid by green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 138 nests by loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta).

This amounts to the highest number of green sea turtle nests during any one season recorded on Little St. George which more than doubles the previous record of eight nests in 2017. ANERR staff estimate that almost 6,000 loggerhead hatchlings and 1,600 green sea turtle hatchlings emerged from nests on Little St. George and trekked toward the Gulf of Mexico.

It also was a record year for the Atlantic hurricane season. Last year brought a record number of named storms, 30, nine early-season storms (May through July) and 12 landfalls in the contiguous United States. These storms likely had a significant impact on sea turtle nests across the nation, and they affected many nests on Little St. George. At least 52 of the 156 nests were either completely or partially washed out, or “overwashed.” The two storms with the greatest impact to our area were Tropical Storm Cristobal, making landfall June 6-7, and Hurricane Sally, which landed Sept. 14-16. These storms bookended the primary nesting season and brought storm surge that washed away some nests.

While these storm events may seem to be a cause for concern, sea turtles have an adaptable breeding strategy that has developed over time. Within this adaptive strategy, females can lay multiple nests – with upward of 100 eggs in each clutch – throughout the nesting season, often at different locations on their home beach. These strategies give sea turtle hatchlings a strong chance to journey from their nest into the Gulf.

As Floridians welcome the summer and this year’s nesting season, remember these tips to help these endangered animals survive.

· Clean up debris. At the end of each day, pick up all beach chairs, umbrellas, gazebos and trash.

· Keep it dark. Turn off beach lights and use turtle-friendly flashlights at night.

· Keep it flat. Fill holes and knock down sandcastles that might be obstacles to turtles.

Think clean, dark and flat, and the sea turtles will thank you!

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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