Byline: SARAH ROSE STEWART
AMELIA ISLAND - Hours before many residents along the beaches of Amelia Island rise on summer mornings, the sea turtles nesting there are hard at work on their lives' ambition: reproduction.
Mother sea turtles of three species - green, loggerhead and leatherback - weighing from 100 to 2,000 pounds, toil to find perfect spots to nest on Amelia Island's beaches. Year after year, many revisit the area between May and September, often facing new and unforeseen man-made hazards.
In an effort to prevent those hazards from harming sea turtles, volunteers with Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch Inc. are using enforced protection and scientific study. The group is rallying now to inspire more residents to help.
Each year from May 1 to Aug. 31, volunteers survey areas covering about 9.3 miles of beach. Most volunteers are trained in survey procedures, but others choose to walk the beaches and alert those trained if they find a turtle nest. From daybreak to about 8 a.m., volunteers locate nests, crawls (tracks left by turtles in the sand), and strandings (sea turtles that wash up dead or need medical attention), then report to a coordinator.
This year, endangered green sea turtles are highly anticipated because they typically nest in the area in odd-numbered years.
Mary Duffy, an active member and volunteer with the watch group since its inception in 1985, has seen hundreds of hatchlings emerge and become seaborne. Training volunteers, she said, is something she holds close to her heart.
Some of her most memorable experiences are seeing twin albino sea turtles, as well as hatchlings that appeared to be hybrids of two different species.
"I've seen it all," she said, "but the best nests are the ones where everything hatches and all that's left are empty egg shells."
If any nests need to be moved, they are placed in environments similar to their original spots. Even the temperature of the sand can affect a nest - cold sand produces more males.
The watch group aims to use as little human intervention as possible to create natural environments. That's why the eggs no longer are incubated in someone's garage, and instead are relocated to protected beaches, such as those within Fort Clinch State Park.
The biggest obstacles to successful sea turtle reproduction are not the fire ants, raccoons, wild dogs, crabs, or sea gulls that invade nests and eat eggs.
Inappropriate human behavior is worse, Duffy said.
That includes people driving over nests, leaving trash on the beach, not paying attention to beach lighting regulations, and even poaching. …