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As sea turtle season begins, volunteers gear up (w/video)

His name is Joe Widlansky, but he goes by "Turtle Joe."

He spends his mornings rumbling along in a gray pickup truck with magnetic decals on each side that depict turtles, his eyes trained on the expanse of white sand along St. Pete Beach.

"Everybody knows who I am," he said one recent Thursday morning, dressed in a bright, lime green T-shirt, a symbol that he was a member of the nonprofit group Sea Turtle Trackers, which monitors part of the shores in Pinellas County for sea turtle nests.

From May until the end of October, Widlansky, vice president of the organization, plans to drive along the beach in the truck, starting at Upham Beach Park and traveling down to Pass-a-Grille Beach, eyeing the sand and beach equipment rental huts that line the 4-mile stretch. Sometimes he'll go down to Shell Key, or one of the organization's volunteers will, to check for nests there. He retired from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but says his daily beach patrols during sea turtle season are part of his semi-retirement.

This summer, hundreds of volunteers like Widlansky will patrol the beaches every morning before sunrise, scouting the sand for tracks that could lead to a sea turtle nest.

"Everybody loves the turtle patrol," the 58-year-old sang as the 2006 gray Dodge Dakota, purchased and owned by the organization, made its way across bumpy sand as the sun began to rise. This year, they've found 33 nests so far, 11 of them on St. Pete Beach and 22 on Shell Key — easily double the number by this time last year, Widlansky said.

At Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, the first nests of the year were reported in Venice on April 30.

"It was pretty much right on schedule," said Melissa Bernhard, a staff biologist with the aquarium's Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program. The program saw almost a doubling in the past two years, reporting 4,578 nests in 2016 after reporting 2,475 nests in 2015 in their area, which covers Longboat Key south to Venice Beach. This year, they've found 676 nests so far.

"We like to think it's the results of our conservation efforts," said Bernhard, who speculated that it could be that the young turtles who were protected by efforts from the 1980s are now returning to lay their eggs.

For Widlanksy, the day finally came on May 11, when someone walking on the beach tipped him off that there was something up ahead on his patrol. It was a nest.

"I felt like the expectant mother who finally gave birth after waiting and waiting and waiting," he said. After putting caution tape around the nest, he and his volunteers recorded data to report to the FWC, such as how far up the beach the female turtle laid her nest.

Meghan Koperski, a biological scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Commission, said there is no definitive answer as to why the number of nests fluctuate, but conservation efforts could be a factor.

"It's certainly possible that we might be beginning to see some of the protection efforts," she said.

Organizations report their findings at the end of each season to the FWC, she said. But because the number of nests found don't necessarily equal sea turtle population, the reported numbers are a tool to estimate reproductive female turtles because males aren't necessarily accounted for.

Despite there being a record high of about 122,000 loggerhead turtle nests in 2016, around Florida, anything could happen, she said. There are still too many factors when estimating turtle populations.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium also reported a record high of 318 nests in 2016, which senior sea turtle nesting biologist Lindsey Flynn said is a good sign. But every season is unpredictable.

"You never know what you're going to get," said Flynn, who works in the aquarium's Sea Turtle Conservation Program, which covers about 25 miles from Clearwater Beach down to Treasure Island. This year, they have found 32 nests so far.

For Kristina Aldrich, that Thursday morning with Widlansky was her second season volunteering with Sea Turtle Trackers. She met Widlansky at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she only knew him as "Turtle Joe."

As they made their way down Pass-a-Grille Beach, he stopped to talk to most of the morning beachgoers and waved at the runners. Some were volunteers; others were regulars. In the past two years, the volunteer group has reported 94 nests, up from 80 nests in 2014.

"They're filming Good Morning America," Widlandsky whispered as he drove past the Don CeSar Hotel, where cameras were set up. When asked how he knew this, he simply replied, "Grapevine."

"He knows everything," Aldrich said.

As he neared the end of the strip, he slowed down for a bird in his path that was slow to strut out of the way. He always watches out for the birds, he said.

"The speed limit's 10 out here, but I don't even go that fast," he said. "I'm not in any hurry."

Staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report.

How to help

• Fill in holes in the sand while you're at the beach. Sometimes, female turtles can fall into them and get trapped, so covering them up can make their journey easier.

• Avoid going to the beach at night. If you do go, avoid using light at the beach. Artificial light can confuse female turtles or hatchlings.

• If you find a sick, injured or dead turtle, call the FWC at (888) 404-3922 to report it.

Ride along

Go to the beach with Turtle Joe at video.tampabay.com

As sea turtle season begins, volunteers gear up (w/video) 06/02/17 [Last modified: Friday, June 2, 2017 1:26pm]
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