50 years of sea turtle conservation

Connie Schindewolf.

Guest Columnist

“We must be doing something right!,” laughed Longboat Key Turtle Watch volunteer, Connie Schindewolf, as she pointed out to the members of the Rotary Club of Longboat Key at their August 6th meeting that there have been close to 1300 loggerhead turtle nests identified on Longboat Key so far this nesting season, compared with the nine nests found in 1969, the year that the Turtle Watch was founded. Schindewolf was joined by Turtle Watch President, Tim Thurman, in sharing the story of the volunteer organization that is focused on educational outreach and building awareness about these incredible creatures.

The Turtle Watch boasts more than 60 active members, many of whom patrol Longboat’s Manatee County beaches before dawn each day, from mid- April to late October, to identify new nests, false crawls (a non-nesting emergence from the Gulf by an adult sea turtle), and the tiny tracks of the 100 to 125 hatchlings that emerge from a nest and make their trek into the Gulf of Mexico to swim one to ten miles to the relative safety of the sargassum grass line. Many never even make it to the Gulf, as they are preyed upon by raccoons and birds, fall into holes dug by sandcastle builders, or become disoriented by lights on beachfront buildings. Only one out of 1000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood. While loggerhead turtles are the most prevalent in our area, there have been several green sea turtle nests found in recent years.

Thurman explained that the sex of the turtle hatchlings is a function of the warmth of the sand in which the nest is located, noting that there are “hot chicks and cool dudes.” An adult female sea turtle, weighing 200 to 300 pounds, can lay multiple nests in a season and will return each year to the same area. The hatchlings emerge from the nests in the cool overnight hours approximately 60 days after the “clutch” is created by the female.

Schindewolf has volunteered with the group since 1984. She outlined the evolution of sea turtle conservation efforts, admitting that conservationists made many well-intentioned but drastic mistakes in their early efforts to help the turtle population, often causing more harm than good. The passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 was the start of better understanding and education about sea turtle conservation. The recent passage of ordinances, such as Longboat Key’s that require beachfront properties to turn off or shield lights at night to prevent disorientation and which require that no one be on the beach between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., have been positive developments in promoting the survival of hatchlings.

During the height of the nesting season in June and July, the Turtle Watch conducts public “turtle walks” on Saturday mornings at 6:45 a.m., starting near the 4795 Gulf of Mexico Drive beach access. During the school year, the group provides educational outreach at local elementary schools, conducting events, displaying items, and providing hands-on experiences for the children. To learn more about Longboat Key Turtle Watch and volunteer opportunities, visit lbkturtlewatch.org. To learn more about the programs and community service of the Rotary Club of Longboat Key, visit longboatkeyrotary.org.

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