Two weeks ago today, the first baby sea turtles of the 2014 season left their nest on Fort Myers Beach and successfully made their way to the Gulf to swim for their lives using the Gulf Stream in hopes to reach the Sargasso Sea without incident.
Unfortunately, some hatchlings from the second and third hatched nests three days later did not fare as well as the infants allegedly became disorientated once they surfaced from the nests due to improper lighting from beachfront properties. Some were found dead on Estero Boulevard. The distraction caused by the artificial light directed them away from the natural glow of the horizon and eventually into the road.
When the fourth hatched nest a day later, several Turtle Time volunteers acted as lifeguards and witnessed the hatchlings popping out of the ground and making their successful way to the Gulf. That nest was excavated Thursday morning. Due to the empty egg shell count, 111 hatchlings were recorded to have hatched, while one egg did not hatch and another "pipped" (hatchling made it partially out of shell but succumbed).
TURTLE TIME, INC.
Turtle Time volunteers rescued these hatchlings that were trapped inside a hatched nest. Keep lights low and shielded. Beach nests are hatching at this juncture of sea turtle season.
Thus comes the positives and the negatives of sea turtle nesting season at the halfway point. The season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31, but this time of year is crucial for compliance.
"We are now in the critical period when a lot of nests are going to be hatching," said Turtle Time Eve Haverfield. "It is absolutely essential for hatchlings to find their way to the Gulf, because they are the creatures that take care of the ocean. For us to not allow them to reach the ocean by being careless and leaving a light on, I think that's unconscionable."
It's been 25 years since sea turtle conservation has reached Southwest Florida. Education about sea turtle nesting season has been going on since since 1989, Haverfield pointed out.
"Everyone should be in compliance with the Town's sea turtle light ordinance (No. 98-3) that requires that no lights may be visible from the beach beginning May 1 and extending through Oct. 31," she said. "It doesn't take much to facilitate the safety of hatchlings. We are not asking anyone to compromise their safety. We are asking people not to have fires on the beach. They are illegal during sea turtle season. Nothing is worse than having hatchlings crawl into a fire."
Haverfield stated Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen has been working with beachfront property owners who need extra guidance. He confirmed the illegality of fires of any nature on the beach.
"You can't have a fire on the beach during turtle season, end of story," he said. "If there is a fire out there, we might just call the fire department and have them bring a truck and put it out."
While the second hatched nest (112 hatchlings, unsure how many were lost) was called a disorientation, the third hatched nest (also known as nest #4 since it was the fourth nest to be built) should be called a 'really bad' disorientation.
Turtle Time volunteer Carol Lis was involved in searching for lost hatchlings and scraping six dead ones off Estero Boulevard.
"In nest #2, which was south of Sterling Avenue, a good deal of them made it to the water, but some disoriented to the north," said Lis. "We did not find any dead or alive hatchlings. And, we did not find a definitive source (of the disorientation)."
The third nest to hatch (nest #4), which was located north of Lanark Stret, was not as lucky. Tracks told the story.
"(Hatchlings) came out of the back of the nest and went in many directions," said Lis. "Some of them made it up the beach access. Once they made it out by Estero (Boulevard), they pooled under the FPL light. We found six (dead) on the road."
Haverfield confirmed nest #4 had 110 hatchlings coming out of the nest.
"We only found six dead ones on the road, and only a few tracks went to the Gulf," she said. "Most of the others are accounted for. They were either lost in the grasses, picked up by the birds or died in the morning sun. We cannot confirm how many make it to the Gulf when they crawl all over the beach."
Sea Turtle monitoring officials believe the fatal event could have been avoided if everyone would adhere to state law and be 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.
"We're asking people to shield lights so that are not visible from the beach. People can use amber LED lights that provide wonderful lighting. It will decrease their electricity bill by 70 percent," said Haverfield. "Do not use flashlights, flash photography and fishing lanterns either."
The nest #4 incident involved a call to action for officials. Laakkonen stated the Town issued a notice of violation to the property owner last Thursday for external and internal lighting that shines out onto the beach.
"Volunteers and others were able to document that lights actually disoriented the turtles and caused the death of six hatchlings on Estero Boulevard," he said. "We did identify some of the lighting issues on the property. At this point, the property owner is willing to exchange some really bad exterior fixtures and to do some window tinting, which is required on any new window anyway, which will help reduce that interior light from hitting the beach."
Laakkonen said the property owner was "horrified" when notified about her property causing disorientation and death of sea turtles.
"She is very much working with us right now," he said Thursday.
It has come to the point where taking responsibility for the environment and its creatures outweighs all other factors.
"People cannot claim ignorance anymore. At this point, when we have disorientations, it's more a fact of carelessness," Haverfield said.
Fill in holes for turtles' sake
Turtle Time volunteers would like all beach goers to fill in the holes they create in the sand at the end of the day. On some beaches in Florida, it has been recorded that some adult turtles have fallen into man-made holes in the sand and have suffered injuries.
"It's becoming more and more problematic. Some of (the holes) are quite large," said Lis. "It's a problem for both the adults and the hatchlings."
First nest success
On July 16, Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield performed emergency excavations on the first sea turtle nest of 2014. That nest was at the 74-day mark without hatching. While a normal hatching process runs between 55 to 65 days, Turtle Time officials are allowed to dig after a 70-day evaluation stretch, but Haverfield decided to wait a few extra days to see if the natural process would work.
"The sand temperatures have been pretty cool, so I knew a few extra days was OK," Haverfield said at the time.
The nest was located just south of Sterling Avenue. It was relocated there due to its prior position being below the mean high tide line and a threat of any tidal or rain event. It already had a watery bottom prior to being moved. It was named 'Ron's nest' after a part-time Beach resident who recently turned 100 years old.
In all, 104 hatchlings emerged from 107 eggs for a 97 percent success rate.
"'It was a clean hatch with just three infertile eggs," said Haverfield. "It was a very, very successful nest. We are very pleased."
The excavation results become part of a report that is sent to the Sea Turtle Marine Division of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is passed on to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.
Turtle Time monitors not only Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, but Big Hickory Island, Bunche Beach and a small segment in Bokeelia.