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Leatherback Sea Turtle Gets the Jump on Nesting

It's not that common to see the nesting tracks from of a 1,000-pound leatherback sea turtle at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. In fact, only 1.28 percent of turtle nests recorded there are from leatherbacks, compared to 5.04 percent made by green sea turtles and 93.68 percent by loggerheads. However, to see this happening on March 24 is especially rare.

"This nest sighting is the earliest a leatherback sea turtle has nested on the First Coast since the state began keeping records in 1987. It was definitely a little bit of a shock; I was surprised," said Scott Eastman, a DEP biological scientist in Ponta Vedra Beach. "Sea turtle nesting season officially runs from May to October, though there have been previous sightings of leatherback nests as early as April 2 in St. Johns County." Eastman believes warmer ocean temperatures - about 10 degrees warmer than normal - could be a factor in the early arrival.

The leatherback is the largest and deepest diving of all sea turtles and is listed as an endangered species. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, leatherbacks weigh between 700 and 2,000 pounds and reach four to eight feet in length. The nesting incubation period is typically 80 to 100 days and generally produces 100-115 hatchlings.

During nesting season, there is a Beach Lighting ordinance in coastal communities that consist of strict guidelines to avoid causing turtles to become disoriented. The ordinance in St. Johns County, enacted in 1999, includes prohibiting camp and bonfires, tinting windows and replacing certain lighting fixtures, among other restrictions. Given the early nesting events, residents and visitors should be mindful of lighting and other beach activities.

GTM NERR staff members are conducting twice-a-week nesting surveys in March and April that will expand to daily surveys beginning May 1. The nests are marked with bright colored tape and a Do Not Disturb sign. Friends of the GTM Reserve is also coordinating an adopt-a-nest program that provides pictures, updates and other information on a nest's progress with donations going to the reserve.

Leatherback tracks

Tracks leading to and from the ocean at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve show where a leatherback turtle made her nest March 24, the earliest nesting date on record for Florida's First Coast.


Last updated: March 29, 2012

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