The prehistoric ritual involving sea turtle mating, nesting, hatching and the early morning dedicated monitoring of it all has officially ended until May 2014.
For six months, Turtle Time volunteers have patrolled the beachfront on Fort Myers Beach, Big Hickory Island, Bonita Beach, Bunche Beach and part of Bokeelia and provided a safeguard for these endangered species that swim ashore to nest on dunes after they mate in nearby Gulf waters.
The watchful eyes then protect the nests during the roughly two month egg incubation period and the hatchlings that emerge from those nests upon hatching in their pursuit to reach the Gulf and swim for their lives using the Gulf Stream in hopes to reach the Sargasso Sea, where they use the Sargassum as cover from predators until they are mature. The annual act of sea turtle nesting dates back to the dinosaur era.
The 2013 sea turtle season has ended. Hatchlings may have left to warmer waters, but conservation for these prehistoric creatures is still a focus.
"We are very pleased with the outcome of this year's nesting season," said Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield. "It could have been better on Fort Myers Beach, but Tropical Storm Andrea caused some significant flooding, and we lost a number of nests to that storm."
Haverfield has monitored sea turtle activity for more than 20 years. Overall, Turtle Time checked out 149 nests on the five sites, significantly less than the 203 from a season ago. The breakdown involved the Beach with 44 nests, Bonita Beach with 97 nests, Big Hickory with 8 nests, and 0 nests for both Bunche Beach and the segment of Bokeelia.
On Fort Myers Beach, Haverfield reported more nests recorded last year compared to this season (65 to 44). However, more than double the amount of hatchlings were born this year compared to last season (2,154 to 974).
"That was due to the tropical storms we had in 2012. It just decimated our nests," she said.
The turtle lady said the nonprofit organization also noticed a high number of unhatched or undeveloped eggs with nests on both the beach and Bonita Beach.
"It might have something to do that we may be recruiting younger turtles," she said. "We are in that time frame where all the conservation should be starting to pay off. I know that is the case with Green turtles. They are setting phenomenal records state wide."
Turtle Time had their first ever Green turtle nest this year. It was recorded on Bonita Beach.
"That was so exciting for us to document that nest, watch it and find one little Green hatchling make it to the Gulf," said Haverfield. "That was a heart-warming experience."
She has seen cyclical years in recorded nest counts in the past and steady success in recent seasons. The numbers include 11 in 2009, 23 in 2010, 28 in 2011, 65 in 2012 and 44 this year.
Last year, the Beach's 65-nest count was called a banner year since it was the highest number since 1996. However, 47 percent of the hatchlings were "lost" due to tropical storms and disorientations.
"It feels like we are trying to race with any impending storm," Haverfield said at the time. "Last year, we lost so many opportunities to replenish the population."
This year, Turtle Time had an odd experience with a sea turtle at Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area and the lagoon within it. Instead of coming ashore, finding the lagoon and turning around, the female creature decided to swim through the lagoon, come up on the other side and make a landing in front of the Riviera Beach Club Condos.
"That's a red flag that we really need to watch landward of the lagoon," said Haverfield.
There were also a number of harassment issues with sea turtles where law enforcement was called in.
"There was one nest that was significantly disturbed," said Haverfield. "That situation is still under investigation."
The first nest to hatch on Fort Myers Beach was excavated on July 31. It was the seventh to be built by a female loggerhead turtle and had a 87 percent success rate with 102 recorded hatchlings out of 117 found eggs presumed to make it to Gulf waters.
Less than one week later, the first built nest of 2013 finally hatched at the 74-day mark with 88 hatchlings making it out of 91 eggs for a 97 percent success rate. Turtle Time officials are allowed to dig after a 70-day evaluation stretch, but Haverfield decided to wait a couple of extra days since it took 72 days for the first nest to hatch on Bonita Beach.
Turtle Time recorded three disoriented nests due to improper lighting on the beachfront.
"Until we get everyone aboard using amber LEDs, we still need to push to get everyone in compliance," said Haverfield.
While our long-time reptilian friends have moved to warmer waters, it is important to know that education about turtle-friendly behavior during sea turtle season is still available to the public on an annual basis. The community approach involves sea turtle conservation by shielding lights, pulling curtains shut, replacing outdoor light bulbs with approved amber LED lights and pushing beach furniture closer to structures during the period that begins May 1 and ends Oct. 31. Go to www.myfwc.com/seaturtles to find such certified lighting that will not distract sea turtles from heading toward the natural light of the moon so that they may be steered back to the Gulf.
Turtle Time also has new banners. They are part of a grant received by the West Coast Inland Navigation District.
"They are extremely informative," said Haverfield. "I believe the public will really respond to them."
Education, cooperation and empathetic concern contributed to the success of the 2013 season. So did a dedicated bunch of volunteers and three interns.
"All in all, people want to cooperate and are interested to learn," said Haverfield. "We are so thankful to the residents, businesses and visitors to our island that have given our sea turtles a good chance of survival. But, it is contingent on us to continue to educate. "
One can call Turtle Time at 481-5566 to receive pamphlets or any other information about the endangered species. Volunteers will be on site at the Great Outdoor Adventure Day at Lovers Key on Dec. 7.