AROUND ANASTASIA ISLAND: Turtle nesting season starts May 1 Courtesy of Lorraine Thompson and StAugustine.com
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles, some as large as 1,500 pounds, are expected to begin visiting the beaches of St. Johns County during the 2019 turtle nesting season.
The female turtle drags her body from the ocean to the dunes area, where she digs a nest with her back flippers and deposits nearly 100 eggs per nest. She then covers the eggs with sand and returns to the sea, leaving the fate of the anticipated offspring to the elements and volunteer caretakers. Left undisturbed after approximately two months, the eggs hatch, sending the two-inch long hatchlings seaward.
Turtle and turtle nest protection regulations go into effect May 1 and are enforced through Oct. 31, or until the last nest is hatched. The regulations affect beach visitors as well as residents. Vehicular traffic on the beach is only allowed from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Motorists that remain on the beach after that time may be subject to fines. All beachfront properties are required to reduce interior and exterior lighting, which may impact nesting sea turtles. Volleyball court lights at St. Johns County Pier Park will turn on at sunset and turn off at 9 p.m. during the season. Driving areas on most beaches are one-way, south only. Motorists are cautioned to obey the 10 m.p.h. speed limit and to drive in the vehicle lane designated by the orange cones.
Both endangered and protected species are covered by county, state and federal laws, which can result in fines of up to $20,000 for tampering with or causing harm to the turtles and nests.
During the 2018 season, 537 nests were identified and monitored on St. Johns County beaches. A majority of those nests, 394, were on the north beaches. There were 105 nests on Anastasia Island and 38 nests in the Matanzas Inlet South beaches. An estimated 33,873 hatchlings emerged from those nests.
While that sounds like a large number, scientists estimate that only 1 in 100 hatchlings will survive once they leave the nest. Hatchlings have to escape a gauntlet of predators, such as shore birds, ghost crabs and insects to make it to the sea.
During the first year after hatching, many species of sea turtles are rarely seen. This first year is referred to as the “unknown year.”
The five varieties of sea turtles that inhabit the waters around Florida include the endangered leatherback, hawksbill and Kemps Ridley and the threatened loggerhead and green turtles. All are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A volunteer program is authorized through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and coordinated through the efforts of Marine Turtle Permit holders. Volunteers must complete extensive training provided by the FWC and the Marine Turtle Permit Holder is responsible for specific stretches of the beach. Throughout the season volunteer turtle patrols survey the beaches at sunrise, post and stake off new nests and collect important data on nesting activities.
There are four survey areas on Anastasia Island and adjoining areas. For Anastasia State Park, call 904-461-2000; Pope Road south to Crescent Beach, email Bob Fraser at firstname.lastname@example.org, Crescent Beach ramp south to Fort Matanzas ramp, email Scott Eastman at email@example.com; and Matanzas Inlet South to southern St. Johns County, email Beth Libert at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 386-763-0977.
For information about permit holders and contact information along the north beaches, go to www.sjcfl.us/HCP/SurveyZones.aspx.
For information about the turtle nesting season, call St. Johns County Habitat Conservation and Beach Management at 904-209-3740 or go to www.sjcfl.us/hcp.