August 1, 2018

Save-A-Turtle photo
Loggerhead hatchlings erupt from a nest during the day on Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada.

Save-A-Turtle photo Loggerhead hatchlings erupt from a nest during the day on Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada.

ISLAMORADA — Loggerhead sea turtles returned in good numbers to Sea Oats Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key this year, surprising even their biggest supporters.

“Basically we’re seeing the same number of turtle nests that we saw at the same time last year,” said Ellie Place, a marine researcher volunteering with the Save-A-Turtle organization.

“That’s exciting because turtle nesting often is a cyclical natural process — a high nesting season followed by a low nesting season,” Place said. “So far, we’re actually on top of the same numbers as last year.”

Save-A-Turtle beach surveyors recorded 39 “emergences” or turtle crawls onto the Sea Oats Beach sand, with 24 confirmed nests.

Four of the nests already have hatched with 427 tiny loggerheads digging their way out.

More babies are anticipated since loggerhead nesting season runs from May 1 through October.

“This year was predicted to be a low year” based on the high-to-low cycle, Place said, “but so far 2018 numbers are matching last year. That suggests conservation efforts from the last few years could be working and sea turtle populations are rebounding.”

“Sea Oats Beach is one of the only natural nesting beaches in Upper Keys, so we need to protect that unique resource,” said Place, who has an earth sciences degree from Brown University and works with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo.

Sue Schaf, a marine turtle specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon, said annual nesting cycles can vary but shoreline damage from Hurricane Irma last September raised the specter of a lean year for hatchings.

“I was excited to hear about Sea Oats Beach. I thought [Florida Keys nesting] would be a lot lower,” she said. “From what I’ve seen so far, it has not been affected as much as I expected.”

Sombrero Beach in Marathon has at least two and probably three confirmed loggerhead nests, Schaf said.

Save-A-Turtle volunteers and Islamorada Public Works staff erected a plastic fence anchored by sandbags to discourage nesting sea turtles from trying to cross U.S. 1 in search of better nesting grounds. Hurricane Irma eroded a lot of sand from the scenic area.

“It really is a challenging nesting area,” Place said.

Eleven newly hatched loggerheads lost their way and wound up beneath a house before being rescued by Save-A-Turtle volunteers.

“We’ve had four disorientations where sea turtles were attracted to bright artificial lights,” Place said.

Other obstacles to smooth turtle nesting include beach furniture.

Save-A-Turtle volunteers “have had success dealing with most homeowners to remove items from the beach at night,” Place said, but some hazards from reconstruction remain.

Loggerhead sea turtles can weigh up to 350 pounds when fully grown.

Florida beaches account for about 90 percent of the Northwest Atlantic stock of the species, says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A typical loggerhead nest may hold 110 eggs, but not all may hatch.

kwadlow@keysnews.com