Saint Pete Beach, FL

Meet the group that protects endangered sea turtles on St. Pete Beach

Justin Garcia

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Members of Sea Turtle TrackersJustin Garcia

"Turtle Joe" Widlansky just got a call about sea turtle tracks to the south of St. Pete Beach. That’s good news for Joe and the crew at Sea Turtle Trackers. It’s been a slow nesting season for the endangered turtles, and finding even one nest would be cause for celebration.

Joe pulls into the St. Pete Beach public parking lot at sunrise and picks up volunteer Bonnie Farago, who he hasn’t seen since before COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, the Trackers stopped accepting volunteers.

Bonnie warmly greets her old friend and hops in. Joe drives them onto the beach and they head toward the call in his big red truck, carefully looking for tracks along the way. It’s a bumpy ride along the shoreline of the turquoise Gulf of Mexico, but the bumps are partially absorbed by the new truck the trackers just bought. Up until last month, they were using a loud and rickety 1965 Jeep to get around.

Joe and Bonnie talk about the recent slowdown in turtle nesting as they gaze across the white sand and scattered early morning beachgoers. 2012 through 2019 were good years for nesting, but something happened in 2020.

“It just dropped off, no one knows why for sure,” Joe says.

“Maybe the turtles didn’t want to get COVID!” Bonnie says, and they both let out a chuckle.

Over the past 10 years of caring for turtles together, they’ve built a strong friendship. Joe worked at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium from 2002 through 2013 as a Sea Turtle Biologist. He met his wife Theresa there as well as Bonnie, who have both teamed up with him since he left the aquarium and he began working for the Sea Turtle Trackers, an effort started by Joe’s friend Bruno Falkenstein in 1979. Joe, Theresa and Bruno made the group official together, by co-founding Sea Turtle Trackers as a non-profit in 2013.

They estimate that they have protected 1,300 plus nests and watched 75,000 plus hatchlings make it safely to sea, and they remove more than 10,000 pieces of trash from the St. Pete Beach area each year.

Theresa is with the crew who discovered the tracks today, and put out the call to Joe to head toward them.

As he drives to Theresa, Joe stays clear of the “wrack line” where seaweed, shells and other natural debris are washed ashore by the most recent high tide. The line provides food, shelter, and stability for the beach animals. Each morning, the City of St. Pete combs the beach with large rakes, which smooth out the beach and gathers debris. This also wipes away any evidence of turtle tracks.

But the city knows to wait for Joe and the Trackers. The raker is behind him, allowing Joe to proceed before making his run.

A few more minutes ride down the bumpy beach, and the blazing Summer sun peeks over the apartments and condos as Joe and Bonnie pull up to greet “The Walkers.”

The Walkers are volunteers who move up and down the beach on foot, looking for evidence of turtles. Most of them started as regular early morning beach goers. Through noticing the activity of the turtles and the work of the Trackers, they were recruited to help scan the beach.

“We found a few, probably a few nests!” shouts Linda Bechtold, as Joe and Bonnie pull up beside her with the truck. She’s standing next to Aman Jaimoon, who is on her first volunteer shift. They point Joe in the direction of the tracks, joyful smiles spread across their faces.

As Joe pulls the truck up to the spot, wide track marks and flipper indents lead up the beach to mounds the turtles created near a sandy sea wall.

Joe was quiet and reserved until this moment, but suddenly, he hops out of the truck and springs into action. “They’re Loggerheads,” he says, identifying the type of sea turtle by the tracks.

He investigates the mounds, attempting to discover where the nests were buried. Two other volunteers, Mary and Rhonda are looking as well. But it’s Joe that has been closest to turtles the longest, since he first started caring for them as a child in Connecticut. The Trackers turn to him for guidance.

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"Turtle Joe" investigates possible sea turtle nesting areaJustin Garcia

As Joe searches the area, where there are three distinct mounds in the sand and crisscrossing tracks, he shouts, “Ah what a mess!”

“What do you think?” Linda asks.

“I try not to!” Joe shouts, and the group laughs.

Joe feels around the area where the mother turtle may have laid eggs, searching for evidence. She usually buries the eggs a couple of feet beneath the surface to keep the nest warm. She'll often “camouflage” the nest, which means that she hides it to throw predators off from the location.

“These mamas really wanted her babies to be safe,” says one of the Trackers.

“If they wanted that, she would have made it easier for us to know where they are,” Joe says, followed by another round of laughter from the crew.

The protective behavior is just turtles being turtles, Joe says. But he really wants to find where the nest is, or if there is a nest at all. Knowing if there’s a nest to protect and where it is can be crucial in making sure no young sea turtles are disturbed.

Sometimes, a “false crawl” may occur when a female turtle emerges from the water to nest but doesn't approve of the conditions on the beach, and returns to the water without laying eggs. Obstructions (usually man-made objects left on the beach, even sand castles or holes) might block her path. She may be disturbed by noise, people, or light.

Other times, she may just not approve of the conditions on the beach in general. She might try to nest again later that night, on a different part of the beach, or she may wait until the next night for another attempt. If she doesn’t find a suitable habitat, she releases her fertilized eggs into the sea water, where they cannot grow.

If she is successful in nesting, she’ll lay around 100 eggs on average. Loggerheads like her can nest 2-3 times in a season. Other types of sea turtles such as the Leatherback can nest 5-7 times a season. The Green Sea Turtle nests 3-4 times. Experts estimate that only 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 baby sea turtles make it to adulthood, depending on the conditions of the environment. They hatch around 60 days after nesting and immediately face an array of dangers, including predators like sea birds, and humans as well.

Artificial lights, which the hatchlings mistake for moonlight, can lead them away from the sea. The Trackers tell a story about receiving a call from a man who found a baby sea turtle in his garage. If hatchlings like this are found in time, they can be rescued.

But not all are so fortunate. Some wind up in parking lots and roads. Their inches-long bodies get crushed by cars. Many die without ever feeling the water.

That’s why Joe and the Trackers ask people to keep the beach clean, flat and dark. And to support organizations like theirs, rather than disturb nests for hobby or sport.

While they’re out there caring for the turtles, they pick up pollution on the beach, another hazard that’s all too common. This drives away the sea turtles from nesting, and risks the hatchlings as they attempt to make it to the water.

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Sea Turtle tracks leading up to the Sea Turtle TrackersJustin Garcia

After searching for over an hour for the exact location of the camouflaged eggs, the Trackers decide it's best to section off the three distinct areas where turtle tracks and mounds were found. They hammer stakes into the ground and section off each of the areas with caution tape. They smooth out the area so people and predators have a harder time finding where the nest might be. They measure the distance the turtles traveled from the sea shore to the potential nests. They’ll report their findings and GPS location to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and they'll make note of the nest. For each section that they tape off, they place a sign, warning people not to disturb the nests.

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Theresa and Linda smooth out the nest areaJustin Garcia

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Do Not Disturb Sea Turtles signJustin Garcia

This makes 20 potential nests that the Trackers found on St. Pete Beach alone this season, which started in March and ends in October. During good years, they'll get 200 plus nests. They hope the numbers pick up this year.

The sun is beaming down now and Joe is resting in his truck after searching for so long. The crew gives each other warm goodbyes; they hug and exchange kind words.

They will be out here again tomorrow and all season long, looking for signs of nests.

Their bond has a purity, formed by protecting the vulnerable and fragile. And there’s nothing more precious to the Sea Turtle Trackers than nurturing that bond.

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I write stories about Florida politics, environmental issues, interesting people and music. I strive to shine a light on issues that are still in the dark, as well as help to give voice to the voiceless.

Tampa, FL
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