I once said the first day of patrol feels like reconnecting with an old friend. This year, after a six week closure of Pensacola Beach due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was an even more joyous reunion when the first day of sea turtle season coincided with the reopening of the beach. As the barricades were pulled back in the pre-dawn hours on May 1, people made their way to the water's edge, appropriately spacing themselves, breathing in the salt air and watching the sun make its way over the horizon. It was a perfect morning, offering a sense of calm and contentment after weeks of anxiety and isolation.
The first day of patrol was different from what I was expecting. The sand was very soft as a result of the high winds we've had in the first part of the year, yet the beach was heavily marked with UTV tracks. I counted four great blue herons, one black skimmer, perhaps a couple dozen least terns, and a few small flocks of sanderlings during the 9-mile patrol. Perhaps shorebirds were shocked to see people again after six weeks of solitude, but I'm certainly hoping they'll make an appearance in much larger numbers during future patrols.
We are hopeful for a good nesting season in 2020. Some of the beaches in south Florida which set new records in 2019 are already seeing high numbers in their early arrivals this year. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) which coordinates state nesting beach survey programs have released data which show that green sea turtle counts are increasing, loggerhead turtle totals are stable, but leatherback numbers are declining.
The 2019 statistics released for Escambia County includes Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and areas of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. There were 111 loggerhead nests/56 false crawls and 8 green nests/15 false crawls documented in our area last year, but there were no leatherback or Kemp's ridley nests.
As a self-professed sea turtle nerd, I love statistics that pertain to our monitoring program. For instance, green sea turtles are known to be more skittish than loggerheads, if that word can apply to a sea turtle, but in looking at the information above we see that there were nearly 2 false crawls for every green sea turtle nest last year, but loggerheads had approximately 1 false crawl for every two nests.
Our sea turtles are night nesters, so depending on how long reduced beach hours (1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset) remain in place, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this could show on the ratio of nests to false crawls by the end of the season. I look forward to tracking and sharing the results on Pensacola Beach this summer.
Our gorgeous beach is open and sea turtle season has begun, my friends, so it's time to start our mantra: LIGHTS OUT FOR SEA TURTLES!