Rare leatherback sea turtle nest documented on Siesta Key

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There are massive tracks, emerging from the gulf, in the sand on Siesta Key, according to spotters with Mote Marine Laboratory's Sea Turtle Program.

The tracks spread almost as wide as most people are tall.  

"We realized this is not a green [turtle]. It’s a much bigger than a green," said Mote's senior biologist, Melissa Bernhardt. 

She said all the signs point to a leatherback turtle - which are rarely spotted in the area.

"They are primarily more open ocean animals, of the turtles, they spend more of their lives in deeper water offshore," she said. 

Nevertheless, two leatherback nests have appeared on different Sarasota County beaches. Mote Marine scientists are trying to figure out why. 

"I'm not sure if she got washed in with those storms we had a few weeks ago and got off course and decided to stick around or just decided she wanted to try something new," said Bernhardt. 

The leatherback flipper span can range from six to seven feet wide. 

"The largest one ever recorded was about 10 feet long...they can also weigh about 1,000 pounds. These are giant, huge, massive animals," said Bernhardt. 

For Florida's east coast, it's rare to spot a leatherback. On the west coast, it's only been documented once, back in 2001. 

"It's very exciting for us. We don’t know a lot about leatherbacks here," said Bernhardt. 

Bernhardt hopes that'll change in a few months when these nests hatch.

"We are going to do whatever we can to get as much data out of this nest without treating it too differently or harming the turtles in any way," she said. 

Sea turtle nesting season in southwest Florida is officially from May 1 until October 31. Follow along with sea turtle nesting data on Mote Marine Laboratory's website, at mote.org/2019nesting

They offer these turtle-friendly tips:

-Fill in holes on the beach
-Pick up litter on the beach
-Turn off beachside lights at night
-Bring in beach furniture at night

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, leatherback sea turtles are the largest of all sea turtle species. They are more deep-diving and migratory than other species of sea turtles, and the vast majority of leatherback nesting occurs on the east coast of Florida. Leatherback sea turtles are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), listed on the United States Endangered Species Act, and listed on Appendix 1 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Learn more about leatherback sea turtles at MyFWC.com.