The moon is still hanging in the sky and the sun is just beginning to peak of the clouds when Cori Hastey, 26, tucks her shoes into her backpack and sets off down the short stretch of Sombrero Beach. Her eyes are focused on the sand as she scans for a distinctive set of tracks running horizontally across her path.
Wednesday loomed as tax deadline day for many, but for Corey and a few dozen other volunteers throughout the Florida Keys, the day marked the beginning of turtle nesting season. The season, which runs from April 15 to October 31, actually begins 15 days earlier in the southernmost island chain than the rest of the state.
Marathon Community Services Coordinator Donna Cofano said sea turtles begin nesting earlier in the Keys than the rest of the state.
The City of Marathon has recently taken the initiative to pay the three surveyors like Hastey who must be permitted through the Save-A-Turtle program prior to the opening of nesting season. Save-A-Turtle is the non-profit organization that coordinates all the surveyors to monitor the beaches throughout the county.
“For years, we had a dedicated group of volunteers,” Cofano explained, but as the season wore on and the summer heat began to bear down, many of them simply lost interest. In 2003-2004, Cofano also surveyed the beaches in Marathon – Sombrero and Coco Plum – before it was a paid position.
“As a city, we take great pride in our beaches,” she added. Because the beaches are mechanically raked, they must be checked each morning for the possibility of new nests.
If a surveyor spots tracks and locates a nest, they must alert Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and mark the nest with a sign that alerts beachgoers to stay away from the nest.
Nesting and surveying are on the decline across the state, according to Cofano, but she remains enthusiastic about the program.
“Turtles nest in two-year cycles,” she explained. “We hadn’t had a nest on Sombrero Beach in five years, and then last year, we had six nests, all of which hatched, in one season.”
Turtle Hospital administrator Ryan Butts said his facility rarely gets involved in the daily surveying, but when hatchlings become disoriented, as they often do, Turtle Hospital staff will assist in redirecting the baby turtles.
“It’s quite a sight to see 150 baby turtles trying to cross U.S. 1,” Butts said.
In Key West, city officials are working with Keys Energy and Save-A-Turtle to reduce lighting along Higgs and Smather’s beaches.
Hatchlings naturally run toward light, so area residents are asked to reduce light pollution as mush as possible.
Within the next few days, Keys Energy will be turning off the street lighting along Smather’s and Higgs beaches.
In years past, tiny turtles have emerged from underground eggs and spotted artificial lighting. During the 2007 nesting season, Key West Police officers intervened when a nest full of turtles headed toward the condos across from Smather’s Beach. Several of them fell over the seawall alongside South Roosevelt Boulevard.
The Key West City Commission passed an ordinance aimed at protecting the island’s turtles, and city staff has come up with several suggestions over the years to comply with the law and assure a better survival rate:
• Make sure lighting and reflective surfaces are not directly visible from the beach.
• Replace any bulbs that cannot be removed with yellow so-called bug lights.
• Cover windows so that interior lighting is not visible from the beach.
• Keep pets away from the beach. Dogs, cats, and even ferrets can disrupt turtle nests.
• If you walk, jog or bike along the beach, bring along a flashlight for your own safety.
Hastey, originally from Philadelphia, relocated to Summerland Key four years ago after obtaining a degree in Marine Biology from Stockton College in New Jersey. In addition to helping survey the beaches in Marathon, she also teaches SCUBA at Mote Marine.
“I’ve been trying to get this position for four years,” she laughed. “I just love coming out to the beach every morning. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Donna Cofano also serves as president of Save-A-Turtle. She urges beachcombers throughout the Keys to keep their eyes open and call someone from her organization or FWC if they see a turtle nest.