Peril all around, turtles start trek
By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- Crack. Waggle. Plop.
Seventy-five of the world's rarest sea turtles hatched from Sand Key beach sands Thursday, waddled 40 yards to the gulf waters and started swimming. It starts a long journey filled with danger that many won't survive.
They'll be gobbled up by fish, caught in nets or poached for their meat and shells.
As they turn those hard, frail backs away from the white sands and the blue Panama Jack umbrella No. 47 under which they were raised, the rarest turtles leave behind turtle lovers like Clearwater Marine Aquarium biologist Glenn Harman. He played surrogate dad for the 2-inch long hatchlings during their 60-day metamorphosis from eggs.
He was there at 9 a.m. Thursday to watch the Kemp's ridleys peek out from their nest, 2 feet below the sand, and run for the water. They hardly ran, though it took about five minutes, which is quick for a turtle, Harman pointed out.
"They do everything faster," he said. "It's to avoid predators."
Harman and a group of volunteers were watching out for turtle killers as well. Raccoons and people top the list.
Though many of the 75 born won't survive, the ones who do will help the struggling population of Kemp's ridley turtles worldwide. Harman said there are only about 500 active female turtles left in the world.
Kemp's ridley turtles mainly nest on the beaches of Mexico -- during the daytime and in large numbers -- but a couple usually stray to the coast of Florida.
The turtle is named for Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman with a bent for natural history who submitted a specimen from Florida. It has been on the endangered species list since 1970.
Harman last saw a Kemp's ridley laying eggs in 1994. Hatchlings take about seven years to mature. So when one returned May 18, Harman figured it was one of his 1994 turtles returning to its birthplace.
"They like to come back to the place where they hatched," Harman said.
The female Kemp's ridley, or Lepidochelys kempi, weighs about 120 pounds and is about 3 feet long with a shell resembling an olive-drab manhole cover. Its slick head peers out from the shell. Its forefins are wide and massive; its hind legs are petite and hidden.
The turtle comes on shore in the daytime, laying 100 eggs in 30 minutes, then rushes back to the ocean -- as quickly as turtles rush -- to avoid predators.
On this trip ashore, the female made two nests, the one that hatched yesterday on Sand Key Beach and a nest south on Belleair Beach. Harman said the eggs in that nest should hatch in a couple of weeks.
He's focused on those eggs now and playing dad for them. Harman's making sure no one disturbs their environment.
He's a little protective. Especially after someone stole 124 loggerhead turtle eggs last week.
Harman has the area around the nests staked out with neon flags at every corner. The nest is covered by a thick wire covering. A yellow warning sign meets anyone even thinking of messing with nature's rarest marine turtles.
"We're here every day," Harman said. "Doing everything we can."
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