The beaches of Pinellas County are an important nesting place for endangered Loggerhead sea turtles and the gulf coast is the exclusive breeding area for the endangered Kemps ridley sea turtles. Summer is their season.
For more than 35 years, Bruno Falkenstein and the team at Sea Turtle Trackers, Inc. have devoted their time and energy to protecting sea turtles on St. Pete Beach and at Shell Key Nature Preserve. Their 501(c)(3) non-profit organization has over 100 volunteers who donate their time. April through October is the “busy season” as they do turtle patrol and nest monitoring. Early morning beach patrol consists of walkers and the ‘Turtle Truck’ on the 4.5 mile-long St. Pete Beach. Shell Key Nature Preserve patrol requires a daily boat ride and 3-mile hike.
Starting around the end of June, they also have night-time volunteers who “baby-sit” nests that are due to hatch. They monitor changes in the nest, and when it begins to hatch, they help to ensure every hatchling safely reaches the Gulf waters. The team also responds to stranding calls due to cold-stun, injury, and illness throughout the year, transporting any live turtles to authorized rehabilitation facilities.
The volunteers are committed to the education and outreach portion of their mission. They participate in local fairs and festivals, host educational events on the beach, and visit schools and community groups. They tailor their talks to the age range of the group with which they are visiting and use Florida FWC (Fish and Wildlife Commission) authorized specimens for visual displays.
Through the efforts of groups like the Sea Turtle Trackers, Florida FWC, local residents and businesses, and many others, the sea turtle population is making a recovery. The last two nesting seasons on St. Pete Beach and Shell Key were both record years with over 90 nests laid by female loggerhead sea turtles. Natural weather events wreaked havoc on the hatching success of many of those, but the Sea Turtle Trackers feel encouraged by the numbers in recent years.
One of the most important roles that the Sea Turtle Tracker volunteers play is as educators to the public about the best ways they can protect sea turtles. They spread the word about keeping the beach Clean, Dark, and Flat.
“Clean” means free of litter and any other obstacle that could impede a nesting female. The Sea Turtle Trackers would encourage visitors not to bring plastics to the beach because too much of it unfortunately ends up in the waters.
All beach chairs and cabanas should be removed every night. STT volunteers can often be seen gathering trash during beach clean-ups or on regular morning patrols. “Dark” refers to the importance of only using red light when walking the beach after dark. White light from windows, flashlights, and cell phones can disorient both nesting females and hatchlings.
“Flat” is relating to the need to fill in all holes and to flatten sand castles after a day in the sun. Restoring the beach to a flat state keeps it safer for sea turtles and humans, alike. To learn more, visit Facebook , https://www.facebook.com/seaturtletrackers, or go to www.seaturtletrackers.org.