The six-month sea turtle nesting season is crawling to an end. Along the 26 miles of Pinellas County beaches the Clearwater Marine Aquarium monitors, a record number of nests and hatchlings were recorded.
This year's count yielded 231 loggerhead sea turtle nests and 15,300 hatchlings, both up from last year's count, according to Adrienne Cardwell, manager of sea turtles at the aquarium. Though there have been green sea turtle nests in the past, there were none this year.
"Turtles sometimes will take turns on how many times they nest a year," Cardwell said. "Some of them won't nest, so it all depends. There's numerous factors involved. We can't say (the increased numbers) are due to our work at this point, but it's a record high."
Some of the success, she said, is due in part to favorable weather. Tropical Storm Debby had an adverse effect on last year's nesting count, but Cardwell said weather did not have a significant impact this year.
The aquarium begins monitoring the turtles April 1, getting a jump on the official season, which runs May 1 through Oct. 31. Much of the work involves ensuring the turtles are able to properly nest.
"Our big issue is lighting and public interaction with the nest," Cardwell said.
To combat these issues, teams search for turtle tracks to locate the nests. Members put stakes around four corners of a nest and tape the area to mark and protect it. In places with a higher population and greater light sources, members put plastic mesh around the nests.
"Our baby sea turtles are attracted by light," Cardwell said, referring to moonlight that safely draws turtle hatchlings to the sea. But homes and businesses? "They're going to head toward the light, which might not be the right direction in this case."
Teams return after 50 days when the nests go "live." Taking two shifts, the teams help guide the hatchlings to the water from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The period before the nest is ready to hatch is an important time to protect the eggs, as vandalism is common.
"We even have people digging up the eggs or relocating eggs or messing around with the nest itself, which actually has an effect on the viability of the eggs," Cardwell said.
It's illegal to tamper with a sea turtle nest. Loggerheads are considered a threatened species, and are the only species of sea turtle in Florida with a population great enough to not be classified as endangered, a more dire status.
To better educate folks, aquarium members go into local communities to talk about protection laws, turtle-safe lighting and clearing the beach of chairs and sand castles in the evenings.
Residents should draw their blinds and keep their lights off at night, Cardwell said. "That gives us the best chance that the females are going to (build their nests) and that the eggs, when they hatch, are going to go in the right direction."