Turtle trackers busy during peak hatching season

- It's one of nature's wonders that we are privileged to enjoy here in Florida - the nighttime hatching and dash to the Gulf of Mexico by baby sea turtles.

We're at the peak of Loggerhead hatching right now, and all that action is being carefully documented by the Sea Turtle Trackers of St. Pete Beach.

These passionate volunteers invited me to go along one recent morning to see firsthand how they give sea turtles a helping hand. It's an early start; still dark when the boat pulls up at the dock. 

The trackers say they're grateful to Island Ferry for giving them a ride to the far end of Shell Key most mornings. From there, they walk back.

Says staff and volunteer coordinator, Tracy Andrews, "It's a three-and-a-half mile walk. Three-and-a-half mile walk? Every morning. Every single morning from April 1  to October 31."

Along the way, they document hatchings and monitor what's going on with the nests still incubating. This year is their busiest ever, with 105 nests and 65 hatchings as of August 18.

That's a lot of nests to keep tabs on, and a lot of cages to keep predators, such as coyotes and raccoons, out. The volunteers build them at a cost of $15 to $20 per cage.

Andrews says the design they came up with is working. 

She says, "It's all staked down. That keeps the predators out. We have not had one single predation since this cage was designed."

They build. They track. They also dig.

A few days after a hatching, the volunteers inventory the nest, counting how many eggs hatched and how many didn't. I watched Tammy Allen and Kristina Swift do their count.

Says Allen, "We had 120 hatched eggs. Five unhatched. No dead babies. Which was very successful."

This is the first season for Allen and Swift, who say they don't mind the 5 a.m. wakeup calls. Swift says she has dreamed of doing this since she was 19 years old. She says, "Everyday is the best day of my life doing this. Really."

Ryan Ard is also a newbie who can't help but feeling a bit paternal towards some of the nests.

Says Ard, "Especially the nests I find in the morning. I kind of feel like those are my nests. Those are hitting their hatching points right about now."

Right now there are hatchings nearly every night on Shell Key, which is a nature preserve at the mouth of Tampa Bay. More than two-dozen nests are clustered on the southwest corner of the island, which has a nickname, says Andrews. "Turtle condo heaven is what some of the volunteers have called it because the nests are literally on top of each other."

Andrews says all of this tracking and documenting and cages to protect nests is working. Loggerhead populations are making a comeback, and she gets just a tad emotional when talking about what these daily walks mean to her and the turtles.

Says Andrews, "Everything about this year has been a success. It makes me cry. It's so much fun. It really is. Every day is exciting coming out here."

There's a fundraiser on Saturday, August 19 to help the Sea Turtle Trackers, which operates on donations only. The Corey Avenue "Shellebration" runs from 10-3 pm.  For more information go to www.CoreyAvenue.com

For more information on the Sea Turtle Trackers, visit https://www.seaturtletrackers.org/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/seaturtletrackers/.

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