This season is critical in evaluating the sea turtle nesting population, which has been on a two-decade downward trend.
Wilma Katz of Coastal Wildlife Club, which monitors sea turtle nesting, said last season was encouraging but cautioned that one season does not make a trend.
"A different set of green turtles will nest this year," Katz said. "So we can't draw too many conclusions from just one season."
These three baby sea turtles were among the last to be born on Gasparilla Island last fall. They were released after the Coastal Wildlife Club monitors counted their nest, which they had yet to escape.
Coastal Wildlife Club members, who monitor Gasparilla Island, Little Gasparilla Island and Manasota Key, say 3,000 nests - a plateau last reached in 1998 - would indicate the endangered sea turtle population was stabilizing. Last season brought 2,500 nests or roughly 83 percent of the target goal in a second straight year of nesting increases.
Statewide, last year was an exceptional nesting year for sea turtles in Florida with a record count for green turtle nests and leatherback turtle nests nearly matching the record.
Florida's six-month sea turtle nesting season began March 1 for a species estimated to have been on Earth for 110 million years.
Nest counts are performed each year through Florida's Index Nesting Beach Survey, which was created to measure seasonal sea turtle nesting and allow for accurate comparisons of beaches and years.
The standardized index counts, which take place on 255 miles of selected beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is one of the largest wildlife counts in the nation.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks beachgoers to watch for sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. Leatherback turtle nests already have been documented this year on beaches in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties.
"Please respect Florida's sea turtles by leaving them alone and staying at a distance when you spot them moving across the sand or laying eggs," said Robbin Trindell, FWC sea turtle management. "Sea turtles are a resilient species, having been on Earth for millions of years, but the turtles and their eggs and hatchlings are especially vulnerable whenever they appear on our beaches."
A female sea turtle digs a nest on the beach with her rear flippers, deposits about 100 eggs the size of ping-pong balls and covers the nest with sand. Females often appear to weep as they nest but those tears remove salt from the turtle's body.
Another important step to help sea turtle nesting is turning off or shielding outdoor lights that face the beach Sea turtle hatchlings often confuse artificial lighting on homes and businesses with the sparkle of seawater, and head in the wrong direction when leaving their nests. Confused turtle hatchlings often die from dehydration, getting run over, or being preyed upon by raccoons, ghost crabs and fire ants.
Sea turtle eggs typically incubate 45 to 60 days with hatchlings emerging on Florida beaches through November.
Three sea turtle species - the loggerhead, green turtle and leatherback - nest regularly on Florida beaches. Two other species, the hawksbill and Kemp's ridley, nest infrequently here. All five species are federally listed as either threatened or endangered.
To report someone disturbing a sea turtle nest, or report a sea turtle emergency, call (888) 404-FWCC (3922) or go to MyFWC.com/SeaTurtle.