Sea Turtle Hat-Tricks!

We’ve had some busy, busy beaches out here!  Two hat-tricks in a week!  Our first leatherback hat-trick included two repeat nesters and a first encounter for this season.  Our busy night started off with the return of Hirschy.  We hadn’t encountered this girl since April.  She came up early and nested fairly quickly.  She still looked healthy enough that we may see her nesting again.

Hirschy covering her nest as beach-goers look on.

Our next turtle of the night was Peach.  Peach is another old friend that was known by our research crew.   She was first tagged in 2009, and this is the first time we’ve encountered her this season.  At 157 cm long she’s a bit bigger than average.  Peach was rather vocal during the nesting process; moving such a large body out of water is hard work!  She was a very healthy-looking girl with good workup numbers, but we did find a healed constriction wound on her shoulder.  Scars like this are common after entanglement in fishing line or nets.

Peach front flipper covering with her healed constriction scar visible.

Our last turtle of the night was Annie.  If you’ve been following along you may remember her as the leatherback that was caught up in a dredge effort during the 2010 nesting season.  Our encounter with Annie was brief, we almost missed her while we were busy working on Peach!

Annie making an orientation circle on her way back to the water.

Later in the week we had our second leatherback hat-trick!  This was the first time we’d encountered any of these girls this season.  Judging from the lack of flipper tags these are either some incredibly stealthy nesters, that have also been missed by neighboring projects, or these girls are getting a late start to the season.  Our nesting ninja turtles were Gertrude, Mzazi, and Mariah.  The first mom of the night was Gertrude.  A real showstopper, Gertrude drew quite a crowd up on Jupiter Beach.  She was first tagged in 2012, and was encountered nesting just last season.  Leatherbacks typically nest every two or three years, so finding a one year remigrant was exciting for our crew.  Gertrude also caught our attention because she had a small barnacle growing on one of her flipper tags.  These barnacles are uncommon in our nesting population, and could indicate that her foraging grounds are different than most of the other leatherbacks that nest on Juno Beach.

Gertrude pauses while covering her nest.

Next we worked on Mzazi, meaning mother, near midnight.  Mzazi was first encountered nesting back in 2010.  She didn’t have flipper tags, which indicates neighboring researchers haven’t encountered her yet this year either.  Our workup of Mzazi showed she was in excellent body condition, so it is possible she’s getting a late start to the nesting season.

Mzazi holding still as she rear flipper covers.

Last we had Mariah.  Mariah was first tagged in 2011, and was seen nesting again in 2013 before this year.  A true diva, Mariah couldn’t be bothered to crawl very far up on the beach and instead nesting just over the scarp at high tide line.  While not particularly long, this pretty girl is the widest leatherback we’ve encountered this season.  At 117 cm wide, she’s a full ten centimeters broader than our average nesting female!  We wouldn’t want to move all that body weight across the beach either!

Mariah taking a break from front flipper covering on the edge of the scarp.

While the leatherback nesting has been picking up on Juno Beach, it’s still well below last year.  It’s been reported to be a low nesting year statewide, which is certainly true at Juno.  In addition to that oddity, we are finding turtles that could potentially be getting a late start to the nesting season.  Are the leatherbacks just late? Is it just a small year?  Did they go somewhere else?  Did the moms start out healthier than usual?  At the moment all of these questions are unanswered, but we are working to find out.  We hope to have a clearer picture of what’s happening after the season’s over, but until then we’ll just keep patrolling to expand our sample size!

Disclaimer: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. Images were acquired while conducting authorized research activities pursuant to FWC MTP-17-211.