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Sea turtle nest disturbed by humans, FWC investigating

Madison Arnold
Pensacola News Journal

Humans appear to have intentionally disturbed a loggerhead sea turtle nest that was found last week on the west end of Navarre Beach.

Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Patrol team members found the nest just before dawn Wednesday, not long after the nest was laid around 9 or 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Jim Holmes, a member of the patrol team, said Thursday that it appeared people had watched the sea turtle lay its eggs and then proceeded to dig in the nest.

"We found it. She did a good job. She went high on the beach, up onto the top of the dunes so her eggs would've been protected from any storms," Holmes said. "When I got there, I noticed somebody had been digging in the nest. There were footprints all around it."

Holmes roped off the nest and called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. FWC spokeswoman Bekah Nelson confirmed the incident is under investigation and said anyone with information should call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.

Holmes has been on the sea turtle patrol for about 15 years and only remembers one other time humans intentionally harmed a sea turtle nest. He said about 10 years ago, it appeared people had an egg fight won Navarre Beach.

"It's very upsetting to us. Sea turtles are either endangered or threatened and they play a vital role in our ecosystem of our oceans," Holmes said.

Holmes said he can't imagine why someone would dig around a nest, particularly because it is illegal to disturb a sea turtle nest.

"It's a wait and see. We didn't dig down into the nest to see if they damaged anything. We just covered it back up, and we're hoping for the best," Holmes said. "At this time we just don't know the status of the nest."

Jennifer Polus, executive director of the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, said the disturbed nest is the fifth nest found so far this season on Navarre Beach.

She said the center won't know whether the eggs in the disturbed nest were damaged until the eggs either hatch or reach a point in time when FWC regulations allow members to finally examine the nest.

"Sea turtle eggs are very delicate so any type of digging or disturbance on the nests can impact those eggs," Polus said. "Because the eggs, they're very soft. They're kind of leathery so they're not protected like people would think a normal egg is. So that type of digging in there can disrupt development of the embryos."

Polus said if the eggs were harmed, it can have an impact on generations of sea turtles because so few survive to adulthood. Even then, it takes 25 to 30 years before a female sea turtle can mate and nest.

"Getting those eggs safely hatched and those hatchlings into the water is the first step of a long, long road that they have to go before they can reproduce again," Polus said.

There are a number of ways the public can help sea turtles during their nesting season, including staying out a nesting female turtle's line of sight.

Polus said it's important to leave the beach clean, flat and dark, meaning beach-goers should pick up their belongings, fill in any holes in the sand and turn off flash lights, which confuse or scare sea turtles.

"They'll see those lights and take it as a threat and it'll result in a false crawl. Or if she's attempted to nest several times, she'll actually drop her clutch of eggs in the ocean, in the Gulf and those will become unviable," Polus said.

Madison Arnold can be reached at marnold@pnj.com and 850-435-8522.