Green sea turtles, like the one above, nested in unprecedented numbers on Florida beaches this year. / Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
(Tallahassee.com) - Green sea turtles - those charismatic megafauna that are among the rock stars of the natural world - shuffled up Florida beaches in unprecedented numbers this summer, digging more than 25,000 nests in the sand.
While green turtle nesting is concentrated along the state's southeast coast, the Panhandle also saw a spike during the June-to-September season, said Blair Witherington, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"A rising tide raises all boats," he said.
A total of 22 green sea turtle nests were counted on FWC's three index Panhandle beaches - Santa Rosa Island, Panama City Beach and St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. The beaches represent about 22 percent of the total nesting area in the region. Last year, the same beaches saw no green sea turtle nests. In 2011, there were just eight.
It's hard to know for sure exactly what drove this year's surge in nesting, but Witherington said it points to the success of a more than 25-year effort to save the species from extinction. The largely vegetarian turtle, which primarily eats sea grasses and algae and is so named because of its greenish body fat, was favored for soup and steak. In 1978 it was placed on the federal protected endangered-species list.
"We have been working very hard to conserve these turtles," Witherington said. "We almost ate every single one."
Researchers, however, may now be seeing the impact of conservation efforts spanning a turtle generation - about 30 years. In 1989, biologists documented only 464 green turtle nests on the state's 26 index beaches, which cover about 250 miles and are the focus of FWC's Index Beach Nesting Survey. This year, the index count was 25,553 nests. The number represents about 70 percent of green turtle nesting statewide.
(Data from the Statewide Beach Nesting Survey, which documents sea turtle nesting on nearly every Florida sandy beach, will be available early next year.)
"It was very clear early on in the green turtle season there were a lot of green turtles around," Witherington said. "There were more green turtles than loggerheads (the most common sea turtle in Florida) on the Atlantic Coast. That's weird."
Sea turtles typically nest in two-year cycles, so researchers expect next summer's nesting season likely won't be as prolific. But they are keeping their eyes on 2015 to see if the astonishing increase in green turtle nesting is repeated. The number of nests on index beaches this year exceeded those counted in 2011 by more than 10,000, by far the largest increase ever seen.
Long-term trends point to continued recovery, with a growth rate of 13 percent a year, an increase Witherington said would be the envy of anyone with a retirement account.
"That is the thing that points to the conservation success story," he said.
Nearly all green sea turtle nesting in the U.S. occurs in Florida. The animals weigh 350 pounds on average and boast an oval, olive-brown shell more than 3 feet long. It is second only in size to the massive leatherback, the largest and most rare type of sea turtle that nests on state shores.
It is not known exactly how long green turtles live, but it may be 60 years or more. They stop growing after they reach maturity, after about 25 years, and there is no way to "core" their shells like a tree and read year rings.
The sea turtle's sheer size and gentle nature - there are few animals so large people can get close to without fear - make them a rock star species and a standard-bearer for environmental conservation.
"They are magnificent, they are amazing, said Witherington, who has studied the giant, captivating creatures for a turtle generation. "They are charismatic megafauna we appreciate - and for good reason."