18 October 2008

Last Nest of the Season

Gulf Islands National Seashore turtle program is down to one final nest, Pensacola Beach 8201. Park VIP Melanie Waite located the nest the morning of August 20th, while doing a very thorough job on the Santa Rosa patrol, overlapping my morning patrol on Pensacola Beach. Melanie does such a great job! I arrived about three minutes after she found the nest, so she didn't even have to call for help assessing whether or not the nest needed to be moved.

Melanie headed off to fill in the data sheet while I searched for the egg chamber. Melanie did take a few minutes to get some great photos of our nest relocation protocol.

Just look at those eggs, nestled snugly in their sandy cradle. Momma didn't crawl very far from the water, but she hit a berm and thought she was on safe, dry ground. In reality, she was only about 5 feet from the previous night's high tide line, so the eggs would not have stayed dry for long if we'd left them in place (in situ).

After documenting how close the nest was to the Gulf of Mexico, all the eggs were gingerly placed in a cooler lined with several inches of sand. It's necessary to be even more gentle with developing sea turtle eggs than you would with a dozen eggs from the grocery store. While they have leathery shells, as opposed to the brittle shells of chicken eggs, a minor jolt could kill a sea turtle embryo in the very delicate first stages of development. That's why only highly trained sea turtle biologists move the eggs, VERY carefully, one at a time...

Then, a new nest location was prepared. I dug an 18-inch deep hole in the sand, shaped like an upside-down light bulb, near the base of the sand fence.

Each egg was then placed in the new egg chamber, in the same position they held in the original nest. Once all 106 eggs were back in the sand, they were covered with several inches of firmly packed sand, and the area was signed to keep beach visitors from disturbing the developing sea turtles. We've waited two months now, and expect hatchlings within the next week or two -- they sometimes develop more slowly when the weather turns chilly!

It's a good thing we moved the nest as Tropical Storm Faye removed that section of the beach just 5 days later. With Gustav and Ike hot on Fayes heels, we were triply happy we moved the nest!

Gustav and Ike deposited an extra two feet of sand on top of the nest, which we carefully swept back to return the nest to more normal conditions. The extra sand could have changed the temperature and/or humidity that the eggs were exposed to, and could have effected their development or survival rate. The nest was also subject to much wave overwash in both storms (though neither hit Pensacola Beach, their effects were widespread!). We don't know how the nest will fare given all the trauma it's been through, but I'm optimistic!

This is the nest today. It's high and dry, but that sand cliff is over 5 feet high... That's quite a drop for the tiny turtles, so we'll be certain to have park staff or an experienced volunteer on hand to help the hatchlings to a safer section of the beach.

There will still be one more sea turtle nest in the neighborhood once this nest hatches. Our good friend Gigi in Navarre Beach still has a nest - from September 7th. Let's hear it for the late loggerheads!

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