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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Sea Turtle Patrol Monitors Cape San Blas Hatch - By J. Michael Brown

The cycle of life often begins along Northwest Florida's beaches.  In Gulf County, volunteers are monitoring 96 nests in a six-and-a-half mile stretch of Cape San Blas.  Members of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol hit the sand just after sunrise Tuesday to check for loggerhead hatches.
The sea turtle nesting season lasts from May through October.  Nests average about 100 eggs each and the incubation period is 60-65 days.
The group first stopped on the beach behind the William J. Rish Recreational Park where two nests are marked with stakes, yellow tape and a warning sign.  There was no evidence of a hatch.
"I see that they're high and dry so they probably will hatch, probably within the next week," Penny Weining, a turtle patrol volunteer, said.
A few hundred yards farther down the beach, an excited group of volunteers gathered for the highlight of the day – an excavation of a green sea turtle nest to determine whether last weekend's hatch was successful.
Weining said green sea turtle nests are a rare find.  "It's been a couple of years since we've had one... they don't come every year and they are more rare than a loggerhead nest," Weining said.
After removing the stakes and wire that guards against predators, the digging got underway.  Volunteer John Ehrmann did the dirty work.  "The clutch is usually about nine inches to twelve inches below grade," he said.
Nearby, Katrina Larson's two home-schooled children enjoyed a day in an outdoor classroom.  "It's just an amazing place to be able to do real hands on science," Larson said.  "They see that there are real scientists working in this world to help God's creation."
Ehrmann dug down in the white sand all the way to his shoulder and pulled pieces of shell and a few whole eggs from the cavity.  The volunteers were pleased with what they found.
"It looks like everybody got out okay," Weining said.  "Most of them are hatched and only about ten of them were probably infertile."
The excavation revealed that 130 hatchlings had made their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  It's a long shot, but some of them might return one day.  Female sea turtles that reach reproductive age – in 20 or 30 years – come back to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs.
"They do imprint on the sand and they're familiar with their home," Weining said.  "I guess it's a natural kind of GPS system that brings them back."
Development is encroaching on the turtles' natural environment and patrol volunteers are trying to protect what's left.  "These creatures have been around for 60 million years and we just want to keep them around for a little while longer," Ehrmann said.
Sea turtles aren't cuddly, but there's a fascination with them that is wide reaching.  "One of the reasons that our visitors love to come to Gulf County is for the natural beauty and the wildlife element that we have here," Kelli Jackson, Business Manager for the Tourist Development Council, said.
After the results of the hatch were logged – the data will be forwarded to researchers at the University of Florida – volunteers returned the beach to its natural state.
Weining struggled to find the words to explain her devotion to the sea turtle's cause.  "They're massive but they're beautiful," she said.  "Everybody's fascination is for a different reason, but I just find them beautiful."
Beautiful creatures beginning life in a beautiful place.
For information on how to become a St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol volunteer, call (205) 910-4717 or email the group at sjpturtlepatrol@gmail.com.