CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has observed 200 loggerhead turtle nests so far this year — breaking the record of 195 set in 2003, and it isn't even the end of the nesting season.
It's hard to say why, but the high number might be attributed to years of conservation efforts or public awareness, said the aquarium's sea turtle program supervisor, Mike Anderson.
He said the nests, dug by an unknown number of female loggerheads along the 25 miles of Pinellas County beaches that the aquarium monitors, yielded nearly 3,000 hatchlings.
"It's pretty exciting. It's a busy year and we're still seeing hatchlings coming out," Anderson said. "All around the state I've been hearing there's some record numbers in other counties too, so it's just been a good year for loggerheads."
The news is especially good for these local loggerheads, considering the obstacles they face in heavily developed Pinellas County.
During nesting season, which lasts from May to late October each year, female loggerheads crawl out of the gulf at night to dig a hole on the beach, lay eggs, cover them with sand and swim away.
One turtle can lay four to five clutches, each containing 80 to 120 eggs, per nesting season. She typically won't nest again for two or three years, causing fluctuations in annual numbers.
Once hatched, the baby turtles "go to the water and they're on their own," Anderson said.
Each morning, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium patrols an area that stretches from Upham Beach in north St. Pete Beach to the north end of Clearwater Beach looking for tracks the turtles leave behind.
Anderson said Florida is one of the biggest states for nesting. But Pinellas historically doesn't see as much loggerhead nesting activity as counties farther south or on the Atlantic coast.
To add to the turtles' challenges this year, Anderson said, the aquarium lost 95 of the 200 observed nests when Tropical Storm Debby blew through the Tampa Bay area in June. The 3,000 hatchlings are the offspring of the 105 surviving nests.
Neither countywide nor statewide 2012 loggerhead nest numbers were immediately available from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which doesn't compile reports from local monitor organizations until the end of nesting season.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is one of three organizations that monitor sea turtle nests in Pinellas, the FWC said. The aquarium patrols the most territory of the three.
Anderson isn't anticipating many more nests between now and the end of October. But noting that the potential is there, he cautioned beachgoers to stay vigilant and keep artificial light along beaches to a minimum, as it can disorient the turtles and make hatchlings crawl away from the gulf.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected], (727) 445-4153 or on Twitter @KeyonnaSummers.