Before sunrise, Maura Kraus starts the day riding along Vanderbilt Beach looking for tracks, a sign a sea turtle has nested.
However, after a tropical depression dumped heavy rain on Southwest Florida last week, instead of discovering tracks, Kraus found that several nests had been washed over.
“We’ve lost nests. Any nests that were close to the water that were inundated might hatch. It depends on how long the water stayed on top of the egg,” said Kraus, principal environmental specialist for Collier County. “The egg’s porous, it needs to breathe, so they may have drowned.”
It wasn’t all disappointment on the beach, though. Vanderbilt Beach has had 108 nests, nearly double last year’s count, since the season began May 1, and now the baby turtles are hatching.
“We had two nice large nests that almost had complete hatches and hopefully the babies are safe and in the Gulf of Mexico and on their way out,” Kraus said.
Despite the storm damage and a nesting season that started late due to cold water temperatures, so far this has been a good year for sea turtle nests.
Collier County has seen an increase in nesting with 742 nests to date from Barefoot Beach to the Ten Thousand Islands, and more nests could still pop up in the next week or two.
“Last year at this time we had about 550,” said Kraus. “After watching our nest numbers go down sharply for about 10 years we finally had an up year, so it’s very encouraging.”
Kraus is referring to a statewide decline in loggerhead nesting numbers, which has been documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Anne Meylan, research administrator with the institute, said it is unclear what has caused the decline but preliminary data for this year is looking better than last year.
“We do hear it’s a really good season,” said Meylan.
Official reports won’t come in until after nesting has ended.
Bonita Beach is having its best nesting season since 2004, according to Eve Haverfield, founder of the volunteer group Turtle Time.
“Last year we had 36 nests. This year we’re already at 69,” said Haverfield. “The nesting season isn’t over yet, we’re hoping for a few more.”
In Sarasota County, Mote Marine Laboratory monitors turtle nesting on 35 miles of beach. The numbers there are better than 2009, according to Tony Tucker, manager of Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program.
“We might be seeing a turn of a corner,” said Tucker. “It will take five to 10 years to know that.”
Still, for those monitoring turtle nests at dawn every day it is encouraging.
“For us who are out here who saw the drastic decline it is actually a bit of an emotional boost for us and initiates kind of a hopeful sense for the future, that maybe this is the beginning of a turnaround for the loggerhead sea turtles,” said Haverfield.