Two hurricanes didn't discourage sea turtles from nesting along Pinellas County's beaches this year. In fact, 2016 set a new record for turtle nests, according to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
"We have never observed that many sea turtle nests in one year," said Lindsey Flynn, senior sea turtle nesting biologist at the aquarium. She said aquarium experts have been monitoring the nests on Pinellas beaches since 1978.
Volunteers counted 318 sea turtle nests this year. Those nests produced 13,199 hatchlings that dug their way out of their nests and toddled down to the water to swim away.
Other parts of Florida saw a similar pattern. In Broward County, for instance, the total of 3,567 nests laid overall made 2016 the highest year on record there since the county's Sea Turtle Conservation Program began counting nests in 1981.
No one can say for sure why Florida sea turtles had a baby boom this year, Flynn said, but there are three theories:
• One is that the loggerheads and other species of sea turtles follow a cycle of nesting that changes every two to four years, and this year the natural cycle brought more turtles back to Florida's beaches than ever before.
• Another is that it's a convergence of new recruits to nesting — in other words, a prior year's nesting boom produced the females that are now old enough to begin nesting themselves.
• The third theory, Flynn said, is "our conservation efforts that started way back when are finally showing some results." Florida's first steps toward saving the sea turtles — all of which are either classified as threatened or endangered species — were taken in the 1970s.
That the nesting broke records is even more remarkable given that two hurricanes hit Florida this year, the first to make landfall in 11 years. Hurricanes can not only damage or destroy nests but also cause severe beach erosion that prevents the turtles from finding a good spot to nest.
In all, five sea turtle species nest on Florida's beaches. About 90 percent of all loggerhead turtles are hatched somewhere along the Florida coast.
Females nest every two to three years on sandy beaches. They dig a hole, then back up to it and deposit anywhere from 80 to 120 eggs. Then they cover the hole back up to camouflage it and drag themselves back down the shoreline to the water and swim away.
After a two-month incubation period, the turtle hatchlings dig out of their nest at the same time. They leave the nest at night and head for the brightest light. On a dark beach, that's generally the moon reflecting off the sea. If beach residents leave their lights on, though, the hatchlings will go the wrong way, usually winding up beneath the wheels of cars.
If they survive to adulthood, the females will return to the same beach each time to lay their own eggs.
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.