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Early Pinellas sea turtle numbers are encouraging

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Since May, staff and volunteers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium have documented 209 sea turtle nests along nearly 26 miles of beach that line the Pinellas County coast from Clearwater Beach to Treasure Island's Sunset Beach. On St. Pete Beach and Shell Key to the south, an independent researcher has documented 55 nests. That makes for one of the most productive nesting seasons in recent history. "We've already broken last year's record," said biologist Adrienne Cardwell, who heads the aquarium's sea turtle program.Now, the eggs are starting to hatch. Last week, a nest on Indian Rocks Beach yielded one of the season's first batches of baby sea turtles. Three have hatched on St. Pete Beach. "I'm looking forward to many more," said Bruno Falkenstein, the independent researcher who for decades has led a small research team on the nest surveys along Pinellas County's southernmost beaches.With a record nesting season in mind, researchers are stepping up their efforts to count the nests and the hatchlings, so they can understand the health of extremely vulnerable sea turtle populations.The number of nests fluctuates from year to year, sometimes greatly.Last year, the final nest count was 200. While there's no telling what the 2013 boost means, it's a good sign, Cardwell said."It suggests that we're seeing signs of the population making a comeback," she said. "It has its ups and its downs, and we seem to be on an upswing now."A small team spends each summer looking for nesting sites on Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Treasure Island. They go out at dawn and dusk to watch for larger tracks of gravid mother turtles as well as those of tiny sea-bound hatchlings.New nests are roped off with orange tape, while those that are due to hatch are usually covered with a mesh cage with an opening that faces the water.Recently, a cluster of nests laid nearly two months ago along Indian Rocks Beach has caught the interest of team members. One hatched last week, and the team is keeping a close eye on the rest of them, all of which likely belong to the same imperiled species. "We mainly get loggerhead sea turtles nesting on our beaches," said Mike Andersen, a supervisor with the aquarium's marine turtle program. "Occasionally we may see a green sea turtle nest or a Kemp's ridley, but this season we only have loggerheads so far."Loggerheads are a federally threatened species, while the other two are federally endangered, the latter critically so.That's why researchers say it is vital to keep track of the nests and not disturb the hatching process.The number of nests can vary dramatically from season to season. Last year, 196 nests were documented. In 2011, that number was 89, down 20 from 2010. In 2007, just 38 nests were found.Each nest yields a clutch that contains about 110 eggs, each of which is extremely unlikely to eventually become an adult turtle.Usually, those eggs hatch at night, and nest-watchers are at the ready to watch them crawl out from under the small mound of sand that sits on top of the nest; they document the ones that make it. Those that do are rarely much bigger than the face of a wristwatch, and they have a small chance of surviving into adulthood once their little flippers push them off into the surf. After a few days goes by, researchers excavate the nest to get a count of how many eggs actually hatched. On a rare occasion, a nest will prove infertile and include only unbroken eggs, Cardwell said.Those who watch over the turtles have little control over what happens once the hatchlings reach the sea; they focus on modifying people's behavior to make sure the turtles can make it to the water. "We try to educate the public when we're out on the beach," Cardwell said. That means encouraging turtle-friendly lighting, for example, so they will move toward the Gulf of Mexico instead of the nearby street or hotel or condominium complexes. In places such as St. Pete Beach, street lamps that are close to the water are painted black on the side that faces the Gulf so they don't disorient the hatchlings. Along stretches of developed beach, volunteers try to convince those living or staying in beachfront rooms or condos to shut off their lights, or to at least draw their curtains to help prevent the hatchlings from flopping the wrong way across the sand.Such changes may be contributing to record nest numbers, Falkenstein said.."I just have this gut feeling that all of the hard work that people in the state of Florida have done ... is starting to pay off," he said.Those remaining baby sea turtles will emerge from their nests over the next several months, with the last of them likely to hatch in late October. On average, it takes between 50 and 60 days for a nest to hatch.

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