TREASURE ISLAND — Hundreds of tanned, sweaty people crowded the beach with chairs, towels, umbrellas and beer.
Amid the noise, heat and general party chaos on this hot Saturday afternoon at Caddy's on the Beach, it was easy to miss the most precious thing on the beach: a sea turtle nest, marked by flimsy wooden stakes, orange plastic ribbon and a small "Do Not Disturb" sign.
Just inches under the sand, as many as 120 fragile, pingpong ball-sized sea turtle eggs wait to hatch.
"Turtles love music," joked Brian Hall, 38, wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses as he hung out with friends just behind the nest. "Haven't you seen Finding Nemo?"
Sea turtle nests are popping up all along Pinellas beaches this season, a third more than this time last year, according to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which tracks and safeguards turtle nests.
It is shaping up to be the biggest nesting season in years for the threatened species.
But with the long Fourth of July weekend expected to draw thousands of people to the beaches for fun and fireworks, the heavy, early-season nesting is causing some concern.
The first hatchlings could start emerging during all the fun.
"It's important to remind people, hey, when you see these nests, you can look, but don't touch," said Clearwater Marine Aquarium spokeswoman Jeni Hatter.
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Only two months into the six-month season, the aquarium has counted 86 nests along Pinellas beaches, from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater Beach. (It covers 26 miles and doesn't count the 43 nests that have been found on St. Pete Beach, Fort De Soto and other areas.)
Those 86 nests are up from 63 the aquarium counted this time last year, and on pace to beat the 108 counted for all of 2008. There were 38 in 2007.
The increase suggests a robust year for sea turtles, though experts aren't sure why. The turtles, mostly 200- to 350-pound loggerheads in the Tampa Bay area, tend to lay eggs in two- to three-year cycles.
The eggs usually hatch at night, though they likely won't do it in obscurity. Aquarium workers look for nests every morning, note when they were made and estimate when the eggs will hatch, which usually takes 50 to 70 days. Small metal cages are placed over soon-to-hatch nests and watched by volunteers around the clock.
Sea turtles start reproducing around age 25 and can lay eggs well into their 50s or 60s. They lay their eggs on the same beach where they were born, and continue to return there, whether it's a dune in Indian Rocks or a crowded spot at Caddy's.
Even with all the human monitoring, much can go wrong between the time it takes hatchlings to dig their way above sand — that can take a few days — and the treacherous trip to the water.
Birds, raccoons and even bugs might eat them. Humans might interfere. Some babies get distracted by lights from nearby streets or buildings and head the wrong way. And then there are the dangers awaiting them once they disappear into the water.
As few as one in 10,000 sea turtle eggs produce hatchlings that survive to adulthood.
That's what gets Joe Widlansky out of bed each day.
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Few people are up early enough to see the beach come to life every morning. Widlansky, sea turtle patrolman, loves being among the first.
He drives a pickup up the south half of the county beaches — his counterpart Karen Schanzle patrols the rest — and scours the sand for telltale signs: parallel tracks in the sand, flipper prints, a disturbed patch of sand away from the surf.
Public works trucks wait for Widlansky to signal them before driving on the sand to clean up the beach.
A recent Friday morning was tough.
The previous night's rain and wind smoothed out the beach, making it difficult to spot potential nests. But the 50-year-old former jet engine builder from Connecticut has had five summers to develop a keen eye.
He has spotted nests in the dunes and nests too close to the tide. Sometimes he sifts his fingers through sand only to find that some poor turtle worked all night and produced no eggs.
"I stopped trying to figure out turtles," Widlansky said.
People are no different.
Widlansky often has to remove goggles, flip-flops, hats and bikini tops hung on the stakes protecting the nests. He has seen footprints atop nests, beer cans or potato chip bags scattered around them.
He's encouraged, though, by well-meaning people who flag him down when they see "Sea Turtle Patrol" on his truck.
How do you know what to look for? they ask. What do I do if I see one? Widlansky is happy to answer their questions and hands out informational fliers.
Every once in awhile, he'll notice that a child has dug a deep moat around a nest, turning it into a little protected castle. It's a sweet gesture, but it could actually hurt a hatchling's chance of making it out alive.
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The sign posted on one of the wooden stakes surrounding the nest at Caddy's warns that messing with a turtle or its nest is a federal offense.
Loud hip-hop and drunken beach shenanigans aside, most Caddy's regulars know to leave turtles alone, says Hall and his sunbathing friends. "I know the survival rate isn't good," Hall said.
His friend Jack Burd jokingly offers a reason for this: "They make good soup!''
Reach Emily Nipps at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.