ST. PETE BEACH — The gray pickup marked "Turtle Patrol" and its driver were ready at 6:45 a.m.
Just as the sun rose, Joe Widlansky, 60, drove onto the sand of Upham Beach, following the tide line to his right and looking out the window to his left.
He was trying to find tracks in the sand from mother sea turtles. He slowed the truck, peered out the window and stared. The impressions the turtles leave in the sand look almost exactly like marks from tractor wheels.
But these weren't left by turtles.
"That's a big nothing," he said. "Oh, well."
The Sea Turtle Trackers and Widlansky, the group's vice president, set out every morning during nesting season May 1 through Oct. 31 along St. Pete Beach and Shell Key in search of turtle tracks that lead to the nests of the soon-to-be hatchlings. While they start patrolling in April for early arrivals, the peak is in June where they will often find a nest per day, if not more, Widlansky said.
The group of staff and volunteers as of Friday had found 16 nests. Widlansky and the trackers' mission is to safeguard these turtles' survival.
While the trackers do what they can to protect the turtles, hazards along the beach at night like chairs can block the paths from the gulf to the sand. Bright lights from businesses along the beach can confuse them and jeopardize a mother's ability to nest successfully. The turtles rely on moonlight to guide them to the water. Artificial light can lead them in the wrong direction toward buildings and roads.
"I don't want man to be the reason they go away," Widlansky said. "It would be terrible."
Groups like the Sea Turtle Trackers are looking out for sea turtle nests all along the coast. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a key organization working toward the conservation efforts. Their volunteers patrol more than 12 miles of beach from Clearwater through Indian Shores. Sand to Sea monitors Redington Shores to Treasure Island. State and county parks are watched by park rangers, said Lindsey Flynn, the Sea Turtle Conservation Program supervisor at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
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About one in 1,000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood, Flynn said, making the protectors' work even more important.
Nests are popping up all along the beaches. Volunteers at Madeira Beach recently found their first nests of the season, Madeira Beach spokesperson Curt Preisser said. They look forward to discovering a lot more, he said.
Loggerhead sea turtles are the most common type of sea turtle found in Florida. Sea turtles are important contributors to biological diversity, said David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The conservancy, based in Gainesville, works internationally for sea turtle advocacy.
"They're important indicators of the health of different marine and coastal ecosystems because they're at the top of the food chain," Godfrey said.
Part of the reason Widlansky got started with Sea Turtle Trackers is because he has always loved turtles. As a kid, he would pick up all kinds of turtles, like box, painted and snapping, and carry them home.
While driving down the beach, Widlansky spots the people he calls the "regulars" whom he often sees on the early morning drives – a chatty volunteer, a couple jogging and the look-down man, a walker who does as the name implies.
He points out the black skimmer birds flocking. He understands the nature of the beach, its people and its animals.
At the end of the about 4 1/2 mile search for nests near Pass-A-Grille beach, he runs into Melinda McKenna, the treasurer for the Sea Turtle Trackers.
She mentions that there might be something in the sand near the Brass Monkey restaurant.
Widlansky checks it out, but there's nothing. They didn't find any new nests that day.
When they discover the nests, which are marked by a sweeping arc in the sand from the mother's flipper kicking it up, they set up wood stakes to form a square around the nest and then add some caution tape.
"DO NOT DISTURB," says a yellow sign that hangs on one nest's enclosure.
The sanctuary sits protected.