The big tractor starts work around sunup, pulling its wide blades behind it as if preparing the ground for crops. But the only planting to be done involves eggs, not seeds.
Starting this week, work crews are tilling the hard-packed sand on some Pinellas County beaches. Their goal, according to Pinellas officials, is to make the sand “fluffier.”
Although golfers stuck in a sand trap hate fluffy sand, fluffiness is a desired characteristic for beaches where loggerhead turtles swim ashore and dig holes for their eggs.
When Pinellas got state permits to add more sand to its eroding public beaches, the permits required the county to fluff up the sand before the turtles begin showing up in May, according to Andy Squires, the county’s director of environmental management.
Beach renourishment, the general term for dumping more sand onto a beach that’s been washing away, usually leaves a beach that’s packed down as hard as parking lot asphalt. Sea turtles wouldn’t be able to dig into that.
“We have to till the beach so the sand is not so compact,” Squires said.
To fluff up the sand the crews use an enormous tractor to pull a 10-foot wide plow with blades that are 2 to 3 feet long through the sand, Squires said. They are working their way along Clearwater Beach south of Clearwater Pass, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach to Redington Beach, Treasure Island and on Upham Beach on the north end of St. Pete Beach.
The cost: $29,790, according to county spokesman Tony Fabrizio. The county is also paying people $1,200 to check those beaches for any shore birds prior to the start of the tilling, he said.
They started work in February, Squires said, so they can be sure to cover all the required beaches before the mama loggerheads start showing up in May. Sea turtle nesting season runs from then through October.
The turtles return to the beaches where they themselves hatched and first entered the sea. They drag themselves up on shore, then find a soft spot where they can use their flippers to dig a hole. Then they back up to the hole and begin laying their leathery eggs, usually dropping anywhere between 75 and 125 eggs per nest.
When they’re done, they use their back flippers to cover the nest and drag themselves back down the beach to the surf and swim away, leaving the fate of their offspring to chance.
Typically about 90 to 95 percent of the eggs hatch in nests with the right nesting conditions, but the hatchlings can struggle to dig their way out then cross the open beach to the sheltering sea. Often the little ones are picked off by predators — hungry raccoons, for instance, or marauding sea gulls.
On the Pinellas beaches, a group called Sea Turtle Trackers patrols the nesting area daily, marking any new nests they find so that tourists don’t accidentally unearth them.
Making the sand fluffy doesn’t just help the mama turtles, said Theresa Arenholz, director of Sea Turtle Trackers Inc.
“It makes it easier for the hatchlings too,” she said.