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Sea turtle nesting season begins, compliance needed

By Staff | May 6, 2009

As the calendar flipped last week from April to May, island residents and visitors alike are well aware that loggerhead sea turtle nesting season is now officially under way.

And like they’ve done for so many years in the past, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s team of sea turtle volunteers – which currently totals 110 members – began their task of canvassing the island’s beachfront areas searching for evidence of the hard-to-find nests. Those areas are staked with bright yellow banners, warning passersby to be wary of protecting the delicate dig spots and allow nature a better chance not only for survival, but to thrive.

Loggerhead sea turtles (and, rarely, green sea turtles) nest on Sanibel and Captiva beaches each summer. SCCF has been coordinating sea turtle nest monitoring since the 1990s, but volunteers have been monitoring nesting on the islands as far back as the 1950s. The program operates under a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Last year, 419 nests were discovered, which made it the best year since 2000, when there were 537. The East End of Sanibel finished 2008 with 33 marked nests, one unmarked nest and 50 false crawls. A total of 19 nests hatched, one nest didn’t hatch, nine nests were washed out due to high tides associated with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and five ended up being false crawls despite looking like nests.

The West End had 246 marked nests last year (four of which were green sea turtles), two unmarked nests and 243 false crawls. There were 152 hatches, 70 were washed out, 10 were lost to hungry raccoons and 16 were actually false crawls.

On Captiva, 136 marked nests were found, one unmarked nest and 103 false crawls. While 36 of those nests were washed out over the course of the season, 101 nests hatched.

In all, Sanibel and Captiva islands had 419 nests last season. Totaling the statistics for both islands, 21,683 hatchlings made it out to sea.

Loggerhead mating season lasts from late March until early June, with nesting starting sometimes as early as April, peaking in June and July and ending in early September. Males rarely re-emerge from the water once they’ve hatched and females come ashore every two years on average to lay their eggs.

“We look forward to another successful sea turtle nesting season and hope to uphold Sanibel’s reputation as having one of the darkest and most ‘turtle friendly’ beaches in the state,” the City of Sanibel’s May 1 release stated. “We ask for your continued compliance with City’s marine turtle protection ordinances and remind all residents and visitors that violations of these ordinances may be subject to City, State and/or Federal fines and penalties.”

According to the City’s Natural Resources Department, Sanibel’s eleven miles of Gulf-front have more nesting activity than any other beach in Lee County. The rare opportunity to witness this ritual on a dark summer night is both an honor and a great responsibility. Sought by predators and susceptible to dehydration, sea turtle hatchlings have only a one in a thousand chance of survival. Human activities can further reduce that chance.

By following these simple guidelines, you can do your part to ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures:

Turn off or shield lights near the beaches. Artificial beach lighting can inhibit female sea turtles from nesting and disorient hatchlings. Most beachfront lighting issues can be addressed by turning off all unnecessary lights, repositioning or modifying light fixtures, or closing blinds and drapes.

Remove furniture and other items from the beach and dune area, when not in use, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Items left on the beach including beach furniture, toys and trash may provide barriers to nesting or result in entanglement and predation of hatchlings.

Level all sandcastles and fill any holes dug during play. These are fine during the day but may pose additional hazards at night. Please leave the beach as you found it, so that sea turtles and hatchlings are not hindered on their way to nest or to the water.

Pick up all trash. Sea turtles mistakenly eat debris, especially plastic, which may result in death.

Honor the leash law. All dogs on the beach must be on a leash and not allowed to disturb nesting turtles or hatchlings.

In addition, Gulf-front property owners should make sure that their properties are in compliance with the City’s marine turtle protection ordinances and ensure that artificial lighting from the property is not illuminating the beach (Sanibel Code Section 74-181-74-183, Section 126- 996-126-1002).

An easy way to test if your property is in compliance is to stand on the beach on a moonless night and look seaward. If a shadow is cast towards the water, there is a potential to deter female turtles from nesting or disorient hatchlings as they emerge from the nest.

As sea turtle nesting continues, you can follow the Sanibel and Captiva counts in the island newspapers and at www.sccf.org. You can also help support SCCF’s sea turtle program by “adopting” a sea turtle nest. Nest adopters receive a sea turtle T-shirt and magnet, and as nests begin to hatch (beginning in early July), they will receive a certificate reporting the results of the selected nest. More information is available online at http://sccf.org/files/downloads/SeaTurtleAdoptForm.pdf or by calling SCCF at 472-2329.

For additional information regarding sea turtles on Sanibel, visit the City’s Web site at http://mysanibel.com/Departments/Natural-Resources/Protecting-Our-Beaches/Sea-Turtles.