When Hurricane Idalia churned past the Tampa Bay area in August, a battering storm surge sliced Pinellas County beaches.
In the first weeks after the storm, a glimpse of the economic toll was quick to emerge: Idalia had caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to Pinellas coastlines. The county has already signed off on $23.5 million to restore destroyed sand dunes.
The environmental toll on beach wildlife has been harder to pin down. But now, more than two months since Idalia, biologists say sea turtle nests took a noticeable hit from the storm.
Of the 75 known sea turtle nests on county beaches before Idalia, only 14 survived, according to researchers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Idalia contributed to fewer total observed nests during the 2023 nesting season, from May to October, compared to last year.
“The beaches were almost unrecognizable,” said Carly Oakley, senior biologist at the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program. Oakley and her team monitor 21 miles of county beaches, from Treasure Island to Caladesi Island State Park, every day during the nesting season.
“It was very shocking to us to see how much of the dune line was gone,” Oakley said in an interview Tuesday. The turtle nests laid before Idalia were almost all lost in flooding and higher-than-normal tides on the region’s barrier islands, she said.
While sea turtle nests continue to boom along Florida’s Atlantic coast, the aquarium’s biologists this year logged 227 sea turtle nests in Pinellas County compared to 313 last year. Most of those nests are from loggerhead sea turtles, with their brown-reddish patchwork shells and their clunky noggins.
At least seven of the 16 turtle nests on Anclote Key were lost in the 1½-foot storm surge that swamped the barrier island during Idalia, according to Barbara Hoffman, president of Friends of Anclote Key. Luckily, nine loggerhead nests had hatched before the storm arrived.
Park rangers couldn’t locate the nests once the storm surge receded, a sure sign they were swept away. Overall, though, Anclote Key handled the storm well, and park staff expect turtles will return to nest there again next year, Hoffman said.
“Because it’s an undeveloped island, it had the freedom to shift and move with the storm,” she said.
Idalia’s long-term effect on the turtle population is not yet clear, but storms are known to make sand dunes more compact, meaning it could be harder for turtles to lay eggs in the future, Oakley said. Eroded beaches can also be steeper, making the journey tougher for an egg-bearing mom.
But it’s not all bad news this nesting season. Of the more than 200 nests that did make it, there was a “great hatchout” this year, meaning plenty of youngsters made it out to sea once they hatched. Biologists helped at least 12,000 hatchlings make it to the Gulf of Mexico this year, Oakley said.
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“Anything is better than nothing,” Oakley said. Turtle scientists also say they logged two green sea turtle nests on Pinellas beaches this year, a rare occurrence for the region.
Even before Idalia, biologists expected a lower nesting total in 2023. That’s because it’s possible that nesting females tend to lay eggs on Pinellas beaches on a three-year cycle. Moms tend to take a long break after laying multiple nests in a season, with some nests seeing up to 120 eggs. They regain their energy after a year or two and do it all over again, according to Oakley.
Sea turtles also were still being disoriented by the bright bustle of Florida’s most densely populated county this year. Hatchlings and even mothers are thrown off by artificial lights on the shoreline. It happened roughly 100 times this season, Oakley said.
And at least 240 times this year, sea turtles reached shore but returned to the water without laying eggs.
Turtles prefer three qualities in their beaches: dark, clean and flat. If you can shield light from reaching the shoreline, clean up your trash, and knock down sand castles or fill in holes, turtles have a better chance of nesting success, Oakley said.
“Those things can make a big difference to our sea turtles,” Oakley said. “Leave nothing but your footprints in the sand.”
If you ever see turtle hatchlings in disarray, or you see someone harassing a nesting sea turtle, the aquarium’s local stranding hotline is 727-441-1790, ext. 1.