Official "turtle season" is more than half-way over and the little hatchlings are making their way to the Gulf ... well, most of them anyway.
South Walton Turtle Watch head Sharon Maxwell calls this year a "fair" season as far as nest count goes.
During a usual turtle season walkers will find 35 to 40 nests. This year there are 55 — not the banner year last year saw with a record 97 nests, but certainly decent.
The mamas are done coming in to lay for this year, said Maxwell, and all that is left to do is watch them hatch and count them as they flee toward the sea.
So far, 20 nests are out of the ground and 15 of those have hatched and been counted. Some, such as nest 11, got washed out because of the large amount of rainfall we have seen and our low-lying beaches.
This year has seen a high number of false crawls, where the mother comes ashore to nest, but for whatever reason, goes back out without laying. Maxwell believes the 31 false crawls this year were due to white-light-emitting flashlights on the beach at night. If a mother encounters obstacles left on the beach at night that get in her way, those will also make her turn around and head back out without laying eggs.
Also unusual this year is that all 55 nests have been loggerheads. While loggerheads are the usual frontrunner in numbers, South Walton normally sees some Greens and a Kemp's Ridley or two.
"We vacillate," said Maxwell. "Sometimes there's a high number of greens. I can't explain why none this year. Maybe it wasn't their year. Ask a turtle."
Sea turtles usually dig down 2.5 feet to nest and the nests are usually 8 inches around. Each nest usually has around 100 eggs.
The amount of rainfall we have endured this year has been a challenge to the nests because South Walton doesn’t have optimal stormwater management.
"We have seen springs open up under nests this year," said Maxwell, "especially in Seacrest. When this happened, the eggs we could find were dead. The rest had washed away."
The rain has also hindered putting down exact dates when nests have hatched as it has been difficult to detect.
One triumph is that while Sandestin usually gets a nest, it normally does not hatch.
"This year, the one at Sandestin hatched," Maxwell said triumphantly.
The normal incubation time for eggs in the ground is around 60 days. But it has not been warm enough this summer for the eggs to hatch that quickly. This year is seeing more hatchings at around the 70-day mark. Maxwell and her volunteers are giving unborn turtles 80 days this year before they begin digging. A decent amount of incubation time in warm sand is vital for the hatchlings to form correctly.
"Turtle eggs need warmth just like chicken eggs," she explained.
Nesting season is from May 1 through Oct. 31.
Maxwell has been walking, working, and advocating for the survival of sea turtles and their hatchlings in our area since 1995. Follow them online at southwaltonturtlewatch.org