Excitement is brewing across the Florida Panhandle as sea turtle nests continue to pop up in surprisingly high numbers.
Since the start of the season in May, a steady stream of nests have been found and marked off by volunteers during morning patrols along local beaches.
As of July 5, South Walton Turtle Watch had found 62 nesting sites along a 26-mile stretch of beach. The Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Patrol had discovered 10 in the four and half miles it covers.
"It's been an exceptional year," said Cathy Holmes of Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Patrol. "We're double what we were last year."
A healthy number of turtle nests also are being reported along Okaloosa County beaches.
Most of the nests appear to be from loggerheads, a threatened species. A few surprises also have popped up.
It took a little longer for the first nests to appear along the 17 miles beach owned by Eglin Air Force Base. But as of Friday, 31 nests had been found, according to Kathy Gault, an endangered species biologist for Eglin.
The nests include Kemp's ridleys and a leatherback, she said.
Kemp's ridleys primarily nest in Mexico, but it's not uncommon for a few to choose local shores. The leatherback nest is rare.
It's the first time in more than a decade that a leatherback has laid eggs on a local beach, according to Mike Spaits, an environmental spokesman for Eglin.
Walton County has primarily seen loggerhead nests, but two Kemp's ridley nests also have been found, according to Sharon Maxwell, the founder of South Walton Turtle Watch.
More nests are expected to appear in the next two months. Exact counts of local nests and hatchlings won't be finalized until early next year, according Harold Mitchell, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Turtle eggs typically take 60 to 70 days to hatch.
The cause of the increase of nests isn't known yet, and likely won't be until after a few more seasons of study, Mitchell said.
"We're seeing the effects of something, but we don't know what that something is yet," Mitchell said. "There'll be a lot of science done. Is this spike we're seeing now related in any way to the oil spill? I can't begin to speculate."
For now, officials ask beachgoers use caution. That means staying away from the cordoned off nests during the day and not disturbing nesting turtles or hatchlings at night.
"If they ever see either a hatchling or an adult, they just need to back off and let it go to the water on its own," Gault said. "Any interference is detrimental to them."
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