Bruno Falkenstein, left, and his friend Joe Widlansky stand next to a sea turtle nest on the beach in Pass a Grille. The men are part of Turtle Trackers a group that helps protect sea turtle hatchlings.
ST. PETE BEACH – Lifetime St. Pete Beach resident Bruno Falkenstein is an addict. He has been for years and no amount of rehab is going to break him of his habit.
In fact, no one wants to because his habit, his addiction, is helping an endangered species thrive and survive.
Falkenstein, 70, has been protecting sea turtle nests for years. His love for turtles began in the late 1970s when he was walking along the beach one day.
“My interest was brought alive in 1979 when I found a dead turtle on the beach,” he said. “Later that same year I got involved in finding a nest and I got talking to some people from Natural Resources and that started my desire to help sea turtles.”
He began to keep an eye out for the turtle nests on his own, then soon after his two daughters got involved with him. He was not inclined to involve anyone else.
“People wanted to volunteer to help but I shied away,” he said. “Then one year six different people came to me and asked me to start an organization. I’m not as young as I used to be, so that’s how we started Sea Turtle Trackers.”
Now there are 125 volunteers in the group. Many of them are out every night watching for hatchlings. They are certified by the state and have been properly trained.
The turtle nesting season goes on all summer. Falkenstein says there could still be new nests established up until the end of August. Keeping those nests safe so the hatchlings will have a chance to make it to the water is the key to their survival.
Among the natural enemies of the nests are coyotes, raccoons and red ants. To keep the larger animals away, cages are built over the nests. In places where there are no cages there is a taped outline warning humans to steer clear, ramming a beach umbrella into the middle of a turtle nest can be just as damaging as a rummaging coyote.
Isn’t all this akin to taking on Mother Nature? Falkenstein says not quite.
“We don’t really take nature on, well we do mess with nature a little bit,” he said. “What we do is protect the nests, we mark them to keep animals and humans away, but we don’t move the nests.”
“Mother Nature has been good to us. We give back to Mother Nature by looking after the sea turtles,” he said.
Falkenstein points out that Mother Nature will eventually take over no matter how hard he and his group try to save every single hatchling, it just isn’t possible.
“Nature has a habit when a mother turtle produces a lot of offspring there is a high mortality rate,” he said. “Even if they do make it to the water the game fish are close to shore at this time of the year so they have to get by the fish once they are in the water. Their goal is to get to sea grass where they hide out until they grow.”
“You can’t equate their mortality to anything specific, birds, ghost crabs; it is nature’s way to provide food for other animals,” he said.
Falkenstein said they are lucky if one or two turtles out of the nesting season survive to become a mature adult which will come back to nest. That takes up to 25 years.
Despite the low number of survivors, Falkenstein and his Turtle Trackers organization keep at it.
For the past 15 years Joe Widlansky of St. Petersburg, a retired marine biologist, has been Falkenstein’s right hand man.
He says his friend’s addiction to turtles can never be cured.
“He has been doing it for so long he’s a lost cause. He’s beyond help, he needs rehab or something,” he said laughing.
He says the addiction is contagious.
“I would pretty much characterize all the volunteers the same way,” he said. “Once they get involved and see the action I can say that’s it, they are addicted, they are done.”
Widlansky says it is tough to quantify just how many turtles have been saved over the years because it takes so long for the turtles to mature and come back. He recognizes the mortality rate is high.
“We make sure that thousands of hatchlings are protected but perhaps only six or seven make it to the water because of us,” he said. “The more who make it the more who have a chance to grow up.”
Falkenstein says the hatching of the turtles and their journey to the water is something to see.
“Once the turtle starts coming out of the hole it is like a race to the sea,” he said. “They know the way because they can feel the vibration of the waves. They can see the white foam of the waves and they are attracted to the moon.”
Thus, the advice to humans not to turn on their cell phone lights when they are on the beach looking at the turtles. It could distract them from their mission.
In addition to protecting the turtle nests on the landside beaches of St. Pete Beach, the group also patrols the offshore islands of Shell Key and Outback Key. They have to get to those islands by boat and Falkenstein estimates there are 100 nests on Shell Key alone. Right now he says the group could use some help from anyone who owns a boat.
Keeping the turtles safe is a lot of work and Falkenstein’s own admission that he isn’t getting any younger begs the question, isn’t he ready to retire? He says not.
“I still feel it wonderful to learn something new, once a day, every day. I’m a happy person, there is always something. My mother is 96 and she still comes to the restaurant every day and folds napkins.”
Falkenstein is still active in the family business the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant on Pass-A-Grille.
In addition, from 1985 to 1997 he served as a city commissioner in St. Pete Beach. He has taken a philosophy from that experience that he remembers in everything he attempts.
“I can look back on my service to the city and realize that not one of us did anything good, all six of us did something good. And not one of us did anything bad; it took all six of us.”
“I never judge what I have done until I close the book. That book is closed now and I think we left the city in good shape when I got out of office,” he said.
That book may be closed, but the book on helping turtles on the beach is still very much open. Bruno Falkenstein hopes it will remain open for a long time yet.
“I hope the good Lord allows me to do this for another 20 years,” he said.