Turtle nesting season in full swing

This is a turtle nest on Higgs Beach in Key West.
This is a turtle nest on Higgs Beach in Key West.

From now through October, about 100 female sea turtles are expected to lug their bodies onto the Florida Keys beaches where they hatched to lay nests of their own.

Anywhere from 100 to 200 female loggerhead turtles, along with a few hawksbill turtles, will lay 100 to 120 golf ball-sized eggs in the sand in the coming months, said Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

After a two-month incubation period, a clutch of baby turtles will emerge and try to make the long journey back to the sea. A couple walking in the Coco Plum subdivision in Marathon this week spotted a taped-off spot in the sand where a turtle had recently laid eggs. It usually happens from dusk to dawn, Zirkelbach said.

The sand at Coco Plum has diminished in recent years, making it a narrow place with not much sand to lay eggs and that is harmful because the nests are closer to the tidal line, she added.

Other threats include beach furniture and kayaks, which can prevent a female from finding the perfect spot to lay the eggs and block the path of the newly hatched babies, according to Harry Appel, president of Marathon-based Save-A-Turtle.

Key West Turtle Club President Ralph Capone agreed and said last year, a turtle at Higgs Beach walked under a picnic table to find a nesting site.

“In the event that table was too low, she might have gotten stuck under it. Turtles are big and they can’t just turn around and go back,” he said. “It might have impeded the whole process, if not hurt her.”

Along with Higgs, Smathers and Boca Chica beaches in Key West, another nesting site is Bahia Honda Sate Park. In the Middle Keys, nests are found at Coco Plum and Sombrero beaches, Sunset Park in Key Colony Beach and Long Key State Park. In the Upper Keys, Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada is a nesting site.

Appel has a team of 45 volunteers that survey Middle and Upper Keys beaches, while Bahia Honda State Park has its own surveyors. Capone has a team of 23 people surveying the beaches of Key West and they determine the species by its track in the sand.

“A loggerhead will walk with an overlapping gait and the way a baby would crawl, with no tail drag, that would give a good indication it’s a loggerhead,” Capone said. “A symmetrical gate, like a butterfly stroke with a tail poke where the tail drags behind it, that’s a green turtle.”

He said a female sea turtle can nest four times during one nesting season.

“We had a real good season last year with 10 on Smathers Beach and 18 total, an all-time high for us,” he said, adding there were only seven nests in 2015. There were no green sea turtle nests in the Lower Keys, he said.

The number of surviving hatchlings is changing with warmer temperatures in the Sunshine State, according to Zirkelbach. Also, the temperature of the sand determines the gender. Hotter sand yields females, while cool sand yields more males.

“Usually there are about 4,000 to 5,000 hatchlings, but only 1 percent will make it,” Appel said.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219