With the 2014 tourism season in the books now that Easter has passed, another season is upon us with an official beginning tomorrow.
Sea turtle season starts May 1 and ends Oct. 31. The six-month season allows the annual process of our long-time reptilian friends to swim ashore, nest on dunes and lay between 100-120 eggs following their annual mating custom in Gulf waters. After the eggs incubate for roughly two months, the hatchlings emerge from those nests upon hatching, seek the moon glow as natural light in their pursuit to reach the Gulf and swim for their lives using the Gulf Stream in hopes to reach the Sargasso Sea.
To be successful, the whole process needs attention, protection and help from Beach residents and visitors alike. Turtle Time volunteers have begun their early morning monitoring to check for tracks and eventually stake and protect nests from unnatural intrusion.
COURTESY OF TURTLE TIME
It's time again to be aware of sea turtles and conservative in practices such as shielding lights, pulling curtains shut, replacing outdoor light bulbs with approved amber LED lights and pulling beach furniture up behind dunes. The season begins May 1 and ends Oct. 31.
It's Turtle time.
"On Fort Myers Beach, we officially started on Sunday, April 27," said Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield. "But, I know some of our volunteers that live on the Beach have been out there before that. There's a friendly competition on which person or beach finds the first nest."
Last year, the first sea turtle tracks on the Beach were found on April 29. The early action was due to warm Gulf temperatures. This year, temps have not reached the cozy, 80-degree mark quite yet.
"We're expecting a slower start because the Gulf temperatures are lagging behind this year," said Haverfield. "Last year, the first nest in Florida occurred on the east coast on April 1. This year, the first nest occurred April 20th on the east coast."
Besides Fort Myers Beach, Turtle Time monitors Big Hickory Island, Bonita Beach and Bunche Beach as well as parts of Bokeelia. Haverfield said Bonita Beach received the first monitoring session of 2014 due to an expected re-nourishing process this summer.
"That will require us to move and relocate all of the nests that are going to be in the project so that they are not buried and destroyed," she said.
Once a nest is found, a sea turtle nest will be roped off and information will be added to the staked-off area. So, do not disturb. Florida Law Chapter 379.2431 (1) protects sea turtles during the six-month sea turtle season.
Turtle Time officials are urging beachfront property owners and Realty personnel to join sea turtle conservation efforts by again shielding lights, pulling curtains shut, replacing outdoor light bulbs with approved amber LED lights (go to www.myfwc.com/seaturtles to find such certified lighting) and pulling beach furniture up behind dunes. Improper lighting leads to hatchling disorientation, an unfortunate wrong way path where they head toward that lighting instead of the moonlight.
"Dunes are such a magnificent factor of beach stabilization," said Haverfield, who applauded the Veachs' efforts for the first round of voluntary dune plantings. "They protect people's homes and hold the sand in place so that their beach doesn't end up being one gigantic pool of standing water."
Haverfield notes that long-term conservation efforts have paid off for the endangered species of Loggerheads, Leatherbacks, Greens, Hawksbills and Kemp's ridleys, especially for the Green turtle.
"Particularly on the east coast of Florida, where they replaced all of the lights along A1A with embedded lights, we have seen an incredible difference," she said. "Last year, Sanibel had 22 Green turtle nests. We also had the first one on Bonita Beach. There are more Greens because of the 30 to 40 year life cycle span due to conservation efforts. If this species is really on the recovery, that is a really good signal."
Beach nest counts in the past have climbed in recent seasons: 11 in 2009, 23 in 2010, 28 in 2011, 65 in 2012 (highest number since 1996) and 44 in 2013. The usual cyclical pattern expectedly dropped last year, but look for the 2012 season number to possibly be more of a benchmark this season.
"This year, we are going to be following the trend of 2012, because Loggerheads pretty much nest every other year," she said. "We are looking towards another really good season."
Overall in 2013, 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.
Numbers from the past two years would have been even greater if it wasn't for tropical storms. In 2012, 47 percent of the hatchlings were "lost" due to tropical storms and disorientations, while Tropical Storm Andrea caused some significant flooding and a lost number of nests in 2013.
"Sea turtles have survived storms. It's the people we need to watch for," said Haverfield.
Turtle harassment was notably a negative factor last year.
"It is illegal to approach a sea turtle that is coming ashore to nest," the Turtle Lady said. "You must stay 20 to 30 feet away. Do not shine a light on her. Do not take a picture. Period."
So remember, sea turtles are actually the first seasonal residents of Southwest Florida, having established their footprints in the sand longer than any of our ancestors in a ritual that dates back to the dinosaur era. They have been residents for more than 200 million years.
One can call Turtle Time at 481-5566 to receive pamphlets or any other information about the endangered species.
"We are so thankful to the residents, businesses and visitors to our island that have given our sea turtles a good chance of survival," said Haverfield.
Sea turtle functions
According to Haverfield, each species has a specific function in the ecology of the oceans.
- Leatherbacks' entire diet consists of jellyfish, which eats fish eggs. Without leatherbacks, there would be an overabundance of jellyfish, which affects our fishing industry in a negative way.
- Loggerheads are called "bulldozers" because they keep the sentiment from becoming compacted and eat conch. While crushing the conch, they provide smaller chunks of food for other species.
- Greens are the "farmers" of the ocean. They eat the turtle grasses (much like trimming a lawn), and that trimming helps water flow.
- Hawksbills keep the corals healthy by eating algae. Fish hide in the coral and lay their eggs there as well.
- Kemp's ridleys keep the crab population balanced
Who to reach
To report sea turtle tracks and disorientations (lost sea turtles), or to request additional educational material, or ask questions about sea turtle season, go to www.turtletime.org or call 481-5566. For code enforcement issues, contact Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen at 765-0202 (ext. 136).