On Hillsboro Beach before sunrise Wednesday morning, the program manager for the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program made his rounds to survey nests — and put stakes in the sand to protect a new one.
There haven't exactly been sunbathers around.
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Orders to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic mean people aren't allowed on the beaches in Broward County.
Derek Burkholder, director of the conservation program, explains there's an upside to that for marine life:
"One of the things that we're experiencing with having our beaches closed to the public, is that it does kind of open up opportunities for our sea turtles," Burkholder said.
Burkholder, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University, directs the Marine Environmental Education Center (MEEC) at the Carpenter House in Hollywood. (The MEEC is currently closed to visitors until further notice due to COVID-19.)
The hiatus for beachgoers coincides with the beginning of this year's nesting season for sea turtles.
Three different types of sea turtles come to lay their eggs on Broward beaches: leatherbacks come first. There are about a dozen nests so far, Burkholder said. Any day now the loggerheads should start laying their eggs — they make up the most nests in Broward. Later in the season, green sea turtles will lay some nests, too.
Loggerheads that come ashore in Broward County usually leave about 50 percent of the time, Burkholder said.
"For whatever reason, maybe they don't like the conditions, maybe there's not enough sand or maybe there's too bright a light, or somebody running down the beach with a camera taking their picture … something might spook them back into the water without laying a nest. That's what we call a 'false crawl,' he said.
"For me it'll be interesting to see what the loggerheads do and if we get a higher nest ratio to the false crawls, without a lot of people out there … If you don't have quite as much trash on the beach, if you don't have as many beach chairs on the beach and things like that they're running into, then we might see more favorable conditions for these animals."
The Conservation Program has surveyors looking at about 24 miles of beaches every day from March 1 through the end of October. One thing they've already seen is less garbage in the turtles' way.
"Marine debris is a huge issue across the board … we do still see the things that are being washed in, but we're certainly seeing less trash on the beach than when we've got tens of thousands of people on the beach every day throwing their stuff in the sand," Burkholder said.
He acknowledged, it's too early to see impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown just yet but nests in the coming months will show how much a break from human interaction can help.
"Time will tell on that one, as we start getting those nests coming in," Burkholder said. "It's certainly more natural."