It was hard to read the measuring tape in the early morning light. The sun hadn’t quite risen above the horizon and Jessica Swindall had to squint to make sure she took the measurement right.
Thirty-eight inches – about average for a loggerhead turtle’s crawl width. This turtle had made it about 25 feet up the beach before she turned around and headed back to the ocean, deciding it was not the spot she wanted to lay her eggs.
“We have just about as many false crawls as we do actual nests,” Swindall said, filling out a form with the crawl’s shape and direction. “But let’s keep going and see if she came back up later.”
During sea turtle nesting and hatching season, volunteers walk miles-long stretches of Cape San Blas’ beaches every morning searching for telltale turtle tracks in the sand.
The goal is to find and document any nests that were laid overnight early, before they are mistakenly disturbed by beachgoers.
About half a mile further up the beach, Swindall and her walking partner happened upon another crawl. But this time the tracks led to a fluffy pile of sand, which they immediately identified as being a nest.
“You can see where she tossed the sand back on top of the eggs,” Swindall said. “Sometimes it can be difficult to tell, like if she crawls back over the nest or something, but this one we are pretty sure about.”
Gulf County is the largest nesting site for sea turtles in Northwest Florida, with more than 40 percent of the nests being laid in the area.
The nests mostly belong to loggerhead turtles, though there are typically several green sea turtle nests in any given year as well, and from time to time a leatherback turtle will climb ashore in Gulf County.
The volunteers’ efforts are essential to documenting population numbers of these protected, vulnerable and endangered species, as sea turtle populations are difficult to track and can really only be estimated through nesting numbers.
But while Gulf County’s share of nests is large, there is no consistent number for the number of sea turtle nests laid on Cape San Blas in any given summer, Swindall said. Some years the number is closer to 100. Others it well exceeds 200.
This year is shaping up to be especially productive, and with months more to go until nesting season ends, Swindall expects that there will be well over 200 nests in 2022.
The volunteers marked the nest with a sign and entered its location in a GPS before finishing out their walk. It was the only nest they found along their two mile stretch of beach that morning, but the group’s other volunteers had located three more on other parts of the cape.
They all met up after they had finished their walks to discuss next steps.
The group is not the only set of turtle patrol volunteers in Gulf County. There are others responsible for the beaches along Indian Pass or St. Joe Beach, but with strict state and federal guidelines, only so many people are allowed to volunteer for the programs at any given time.
“We’re limited to 25 volunteers by law,” Swindall, who works for the Florida Coastal Conservancy, said. “There are a lot of required trainings and certifications, and it can be a lot of work to get through the program, so the volunteers we work with have to be pretty dedicated.”
But there are certain things that everyone can do to pitch in and ensure turtle nesting goes smoothly, Swindall said – filling in holes, cleaning up debris, removing tents and chairs from the beaches overnight.
And among the most important things people can do to help is being mindful of lighting.
“We have problems with coyotes out this way sometimes,” Swindall said, “but I’d say the biggest predator out here for the turtles is lighting.”
Bright lights can be disorienting for adult turtles, who have trouble seeing on land at night and use shadows and moonlight to navigate the beaches. The issue becomes even more pressing when the nests start hatching.
“It’s the babies’ first time seeing light,” Swindall said. “More than once I’ve seen them up near the road.”
Gulf County has a lighting ordinance which specifies that any lights that are visible from the beaches must be shielded using ‘turtle safe’ techniques.
Swindall and the other volunteers stocked up on supplies after meeting with their group and set out to mark two nests – number 128 and an additional nest not much further up the beach found by one of the other volunteers.
They navigated back to the sites using GPS, and now with full daylight on their sides, they carefully began digging into the pillowy piles of sand to locate the top of the nests.
The eggs are round in shape and white in color – kind of resembling a ping pong ball – and once they are identified the sand is carefully returned so they all remain covered. The volunteers will not be able to actually count the eggs until after they hatch, but on average a loggerhead turtle will lay a little more than 100 eggs per nest and up to six times in a nesting season.
Swindall said she cannot wait to see some of the nests begin to hatch in the coming days.
“Of course we know some of them aren’t going to make it,” she said, “But any day now when those nests begin to hatch, it’s like all of us get a new burst of energy.”
“It can get tiring and monotonous coming out here every morning, but when the nests begin to hatch, it’s always a good reminder of why we do this.”