BELLEAIR SHORE — Crowned by small wood posts and squares of neon red tape, two small mounds flank either side of a walkway leading down to the beach.
Come October, there's a good chance that the ping pong ball-sized eggs developing within will yield dozens of baby sea turtles — granted that they head in the right direction and are undeterred by predators.
The nests are among the first of what is likely to be hundreds that loggerhead and green sea turtles will establish along the Pinellas County beaches in the coming weeks. Nesting season began May 1 and extends through October.
Last year was a banner year for them, say those who count every nest and egg in the area.
“We had a record year for the area of beach we cover,” said Mike Anderson, supervisor of sea turtles and aquatic biology at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “We had 231 nests, which was huge for us.”
He said those nests yielded about 15,000 baby sea turtles along the beaches the aquarium group monitors.
The data for Pinellas and all other counties where nesting occurs is compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
During nesting season, about 2,000 volunteers statewide walk beaches early each morning in search of telltale signs of a nest, namely clumsily hewn lines in the sand tracking from the surf toward the dunes, tracks that end at a small mound.
“They have to drag their body up the beach, so they leave a pretty good mark,” Anderson said.
Days after the nests erupt, they are excavated to count the number of eggshells.
Researchers say it's important to monitor sea turtle populations for a number of reasons, namely as a measure of a marine environment's overall health.
“A lot of people think of them as keystone species,” said Anne Meylan, a senior research scientist at the wildlife commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “They're kind of an indicator of the health of the ecosystems to which they belong.”
Aquarium biologists and volunteers are responsible for documenting nesting activity from Caladesi Island State Park down to Upham Beach on the northern tip of St. Pete Beach. Independent sea turtle conservationist Bruno Falkenstein handles the beaches south of Upham to Fort DeSoto.
All told, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 386 sea turtle nests were logged in Pinellas last year. In Hillsborough, 79 were found; 690 were documented in Manatee County, and 4,185 were found in Sarasota County. Statewide, 77,975 were found.
Numbers in recent years have generally trended upward, particularly for green sea turtles.
Researchers aren't entirely sure why there has been such a bump in the number of sea turtle nests. Meylan said factors across a broad and complex geographical swath potentially can affect the turtles over the 30 years it takes a clutch of hatchlings to become mature enough to lay their own nests.
“It's really unknown,” Meylan said. “We've really been surprised again and again.”
Coastal development has continued to endanger sea turtle populations. In Pinellas, because there's little, if any, coastline left to develop, conservationists have shifted their focus to lighting because most nest activity happens at night. Mother turtles and hatchlings find their way back to the sea at night with the help of moonlight bouncing off the water. They can easily mistake artificial lighting — streetlights and residential lighting — for natural light, so environmentalists urge coastal residents and businesses to keep the beach as dark as possible at night. Debris on the beach also has been hazardous.
“The biggest threats to sea turtles are humans, unfortunately,” Anderson said.
“The development's done, so our next step will be to reduce the lighting and do what we can to make sure we still come back to the beaches.”