By Airman 1st Class Alex Echols, 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs / Published August 29, 2013
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- Confused, disoriented and covered with sand, a sand-dollar sized sea turtle searches for the sea. Going the wrong way, a giant hand helps it find the hard, damp sand recently wet by waves. It tumbles many times as the tide comes in to greet it, but each time it finds it feet and charges forward determined to reach open water.
The 325th Civil Engineer Squadron Natural Resources specialists monitor and protect the sea turtles who come to Tyndall AFB's beaches to nest. They also compile data for Florida's monitoring system on these nests including where the nests are located, what species of turtles laid the nest and how many successfully hatched out of the nest.
"The overall goal is to recover these species to the point that they are no longer on the endangered species list," said Wendy Jones, awildlife biologist with the 325th CES.
Every spring, there are four species of adult sea turtles that can be seen in the local waters: the loggerhead, which is the most common; the Kemp's ridley; the leatherback; and the green sea turtle. From May to August they lay their nests on Florida beaches.
The female turtles come onto the shore at night to scout a good location for their nest. When she finds her ideal spot, she digs with her back flippers a hole at least two foot deep with the top of the egg clutch roughly 10 inches down from the surface of the sand. After filling the hole with eggs, she camouflages the nest by fluffing the sand above and around it to protect it from predators.
Each turtle lays multiple nests during a season, which hold from 50 to 130 eggs depending on the species and age of the turtle.
"For a turtle to be successful, it really only needs one turtle to grow up and replace it," Jones said.
Depending on the weather, the eggs take an average of 60 days to incubate. A hotter, drier summer hatches the eggs much quicker than a rainier, cooler one.
From incubation to hatching to the crawl to the water, the baby turtles face many threats on their journey to the ocean. Factors such as storms and flooding can wash out the nests and once hatched, lighting attracts the turtles to populated areas like roads. These are big problems for the hatchlings, but their most prevalent threat is predation from birds, ghost crabs, coyotes, sharks and other animals that view baby turtles as food.
To deter beach predators, Natural Resources technicians place a wire screen over the nest with holes that are wide enough for the baby turtles to climb out but narrow enough to prevent the predators from digging the nest up.
Then, they cordon off the nest area to prevent people from disturbing it and to make the nests easier to find for monitoring purposes. At the height of the nesting season, the biologists and their volunteers survey the beach five days a week.
So far this season, they have located 59 nests, which must be checked during each survey. The survey begins at day break and could last several hours depending on what they find.
"Every day is different when you're out there," said Shannon Secco, the lead biological aide with the 325th CES. "You never know what to expect, but you know that when you're out there you try to do your best to help them, and that is a good feeling."
The surveyors comb the beach in search of new nests, identified by the crawl marks the mother leaves in the sand. They also check each identified nest for any sign of predation or if the eggs have hatched.
"When we see the signs the nest has hatched, we wait three days and then we dig it up," Jones said. "The three days allows the turtles a chance to hatch naturally and come out on their own."
Delicacy is the key to the excavation of a nest because there could still be eggs inside that have yet to hatch or turtles who have not yet made it to the surface, said John Jennings, the 325th CES Natural Resources wildlife technician.
"The main thing to keep in mind when digging up a nest is to make sure not to dig into the turtle," Jennings said. "You want to dig out the sand out from around him and then get underneath him and pull him up. You have to try to get underneath him so you're not hurting a little turtle."
Once the surveyors have counted the egg shells, unhatched eggs and baby turtles, they collect the turtles. Finally, they bring the baby turtles to the edge of the shore line and release them one at a time. The turtles may struggle to get their sea legs, but once they navigate their first wave, they disappear into the Gulf. After that, it is up to them to make it to adulthood.
"It really feels like you're helping the little turtles out," Jennings said. "That's what we're out here doing this for, to help the turtle population make a comeback."