A white pickup truck with "Rescue" written on its side made its way through the early morning darkness from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium south to St. Pete Beach. Mike Anderson, supervisor of the aquarium's Marine Turtle Program, rode quietly in the front seat, wearing a blue turtle program T-shirt, sunglasses perched on top of his visor.
Two interns chatted away in the back seat. One was on her first turtle nest search and was excited. The other was angry. Elizabeth Shaw was angry with ignorant people who leave trash on the beach, angry with people who pull stakes up from marked sea turtle nests and angry with the lack of education that leads people to endanger already endangered sea turtles.
"People think that just because they're out on the beach they can do whatever they want," Shaw said. "They think it's their right to be out there and relax, but they have responsibilities that come with that."
Florida's turtle nesting season runs from May through September. Early each morning, staffers, volunteers and interns with the Clearwater aquarium's turtle program patrol the beaches stretching between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, searching for and marking off nests laid by turtles the previous night.
"The biggest obstacle sea turtles have right now is humans, so we have to try to reverse some of the damage we've caused and make it easier for them to use these beaches for nesting," Anderson said. "It's really important that the turtles make it on their own in their natural setting."
Five species of sea turtles nest on Florida's beaches. All are endangered so it is important that beachgoers and residents minimize their impact on the nesting process.
Turtles are extremely vulnerable on land, not only because they are much slower than in water, but also because their unsupported weight on land compresses their lungs and makes it difficult for them to breathe. Their vulnerability makes them cautious, which means any interruption during their nesting process could send a turtle back to the water.
"The most important thing is keeping the lighting low on the beach," Anderson said.
Artificial light on the beach can cause a female turtle to turn back to the water before laying her eggs. It is most harmful to the hatchlings, though, who use moonlight reflecting on the water to guide them to the ocean upon hatching. Artificial lighting can disorient hatchlings, making them vulnerable to raccoons and cars.
"We have people on the beach trying to get the hatchlings to go the right way," Anderson said. "It's really cool to see, but it's kind of unfortunate that we have to be there to protect them."
It's also important for people to pick up after themselves, as trash and abandoned beach chairs become obstacles for turtles.
"Usually (hatchlings) make their way to the water, but if they can't see the water that can be a problem," Anderson said.
People inland can also have an impact on marine life. Releasing balloons can be detrimental to turtles and other beach wildlife if they land on the beach.
"Some species of turtles will feed on jellyfish, and half-deflated balloons floating in the water look a lot like jellyfish," Anderson said.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium found a record 200 nests on the beaches it patrolled last season, including those that Tropical Storm Debby washed away. This season, they have found 13 nests so far.
The aquarium also takes in injured turtles for rehabilitation, the latest of which was named Duran Duran in honor of Anderson's musical taste. There are nine turtles in their care at the moment.
"We have to try to make it easier for them to use these beaches for nesting,'' he said, "because they were here long before we were and, without us around, they'd be able to do it for millions of more years."
Contact Jessica Floum at (727) 893-8340 or [email protected]