He has counted sea-turtle nests in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge for nearly a quarter-century but federal biologist Tom Wilmers never saw a year like this.
"It's a year beyond my wildest dreams," Wilmers said. "It's phenomenal ... fabulous."
Wilmers counted 44 nests for green sea turtles in the Marquesas and Boca Grande islands, west of Key West, this summer.
"That may not sound like a lot," Wilmers said, "but consider that from when I started in 1990 to 2001, there were 50 green turtle nests -- total. In three years, there was no nesting at all."
Wilmers' surveys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported Wednesday, a stunning surge in nesting for the endangered species.
The number of green sea turtle nests counted by trained surveyors on Florida's "index beaches" for nesting activity hit 25,553, "more than double the count of the previous highest year," said the FWC report.
In 1989, biologists in Florida documented just 464 green turtle nests at 26 known nesting sites. Annual counts on the same beaches, called the Index Beach Nesting Survey, produce trend lines for the species population. The index beaches comprise an estimated 70 percent of Florida's green turtle nests.
In 2007, Wilmers counted 37 nests, then the Key West National Wildlife Refuge record.
"The next few years were not as special," he said. "Then this year just went out of sight. I was stunned."
So were state biologists.
"We are astounded and pleased by the high number of green turtle nests documented in 2013," FWC research scientist Blair Witherington said in a prepared statement. "It looks like the years of conservation efforts for this endangered species are paying off."
Wilmers said two Keys nests were dug in May, double the number he had ever seen previously in the first month of nesting. It gets busier in June, then July sees more than half the annual nesting activity.
Depending on local conditions, it typically takes from 55 to 70 days for a successful nest to hatch. Not all of the green turtle nesters survive, and the mortality rate among hatchlings is high. Beach erosion and sea-level rise are taking a toll, Wilmers said.
"Turtles that nest in dunes do real well. The best production always comes from the dune nests," he said. "Turtles that nest on beach itself tend to have nests flooded. A nest can stand a little submerging but not a lot."
Green sea turtles, one of five oceanic turtles found in the Keys, were nearly hunted out of existence to feed a demand for their meat and shells.
The large and rare leatherback sea turtle also seems to be recovering, with 515 Florida nests in 2012. This year's number dipped to 322, surveys shows.
Loggerhead turtles, the most common Florida sea turtle, laid 44,810 nests on index beaches this year, down from 2012's near-record count of 58,172 nests.
Green sea turtles lay only a handful of nests from Key Largo to Key West.
Pat Wells, a longtime manager of state parks in the Keys, said, "We've never had many [green turtle nests] along the mainline Keys. We might occasionally see one on Lower Matecumbe Key occasionally. The last few years, we've had three or four."
The Save-A-Turtle group this year counted 65 nests on its list of nesting sites, virtually all from loggerhead turtles. "We have one confirmed green turtle nest," said group president Harry Appel, "and possibly one hawksbill nest."
"The Keys are losing beaches left and right, mostly to erosion," Appel said. "But we've also people putting docks and observation piers on beaches that never had them. Most of these have lighting, which is not a natural thing for the turtles do deal with."
Tips on making waterfront areas more lighting-friendly for turtles can be found online at the group's website, www.Save-A-Turtle.org.