Sea turtle nesting season is again upon us, and here's what you need to know.
South Walton Turtle Watch watched over an unexpected 127 nests in 2017, which was the most they have ever had.
"We usually average 50 nests," said SWTW head Sharon Maxwell.
As for what to expect this year, Maxwell said it's anyone's guess.
"I didn't expect the 127 we had last year," she said with a laugh.
Maxwell founded SWTW in 1995 and documented more than 30 nests that first year for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission by walking South Walton's beaches at dawn every morning. She has continued to document every year since. However, things have changed a little as she has more help these days.
"We must have at least 90 walkers this year," she said. "I have 25 on the permit."
Walkers are volunteers who have been through training and know what to look for when looking for nests and what rules to follow. If a nest is found, the walker must contact their coordinator, who marks and documents the nest, and also makes a determination of whether the nest should be moved. The coordinator is listed on the FWC permit. All must follow FWC rules as sea turtles are an endangered species.
The type of sea turtles that typically nest on South Walton's beaches are loggerheads and greens, which come ashore when the Gulf waters begin to warm up, which normally happens in May.
In an effort to protect the nesting sea turtles' chances of survival, and for documentation purposes, SWTW coordinates with South Walton Tourist Development Council to establish times those vendors can set up chairs and umbrellas on the beach. Through this agreement, from May 1 through Oct. 31, no vendors may set up until SWTW has given an all clear at the end of each morning's walk.
The walks that volunteers make began May 1 promptly at first light or before, rain or shine, seven days a week.
Maxwell still walks two days a week.
Last year, the numbers were up at every beach community in the Panhandle.
Maxwell attributes the higher number of nests to less strandings, and fewer lights on the beach.
Lights on the beach at night interfere with nesting turtles, as they prefer complete darkness. Many times when turtles come ashore to nest and something interferes, such as people or lights on the beach, the turtle turns around and heads back out to sea without nesting.
"We have been working with the TDC, and we have done so many things with educating the public, and still people don't know," said a frustrated Maxwell.
This year, SWTW will try a positive educational approach using things like stickers to alert people that lights on the beach are bad for turtles.
"FWC prefers no flashlights or cellphones on the beach at night," said Maxwell, "so we are trying to get the message out. Our biggest problems are lights, phones, and houses that leave outside lights on. People don't realize that turtles need the beach to be left natural. The beach is where they nest."
If anyone should come across a nesting sea turtle, give her space, said Maxwell.
"Stand back and don't shine any type of light on turtles," she said. "We need to share the habitat."
A change from the old days is SWTW puts no dates on their stakes as FWC doesn't want anyone sitting on nests. Therefore, SWTW doesn't give out very much information about the nests or their location.
While 60 days is a normal incubation period, a lot depends on the weather. A lot of rain and cool temps means eggs will be in the ground longer. Therefore, incubation could be anywhere from 55-80 days.
Of the 127 nests in 2017, 111 of those were loggerhead, and 15 were greens. There was one leatherback nest, but it had no development.
And, last year, SWTW had three adult turtles that were found stranded alive on shore, and 14 that were found dead.