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Turtle nesting across region turning up expected figures

By Staff | Jul 29, 2009

The sea turtle nesting season has reached the mid-way point this year and the hatching phase has begun. Turtle Time, Inc. recently recorded the first 2009 hatchling on Fort Myers Beach.

But, as the infant reptiles begin to race off to the Gulf in what Turtle Time, Inc. founder Eve Haverfield calls a “swim frenzy,” are residents, visitors and other beach walkers in full compliance of the rules and regulations that govern nests and its hatchlings which need as much protection as any newborn baby?

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of the six different sea turtle species in the nation, all are either listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. After a banner season last year, the 2009 May through October turtle nesting period has witnessed a lull which can be somewhat expected, said Haverfield.

“On Fort Myers Beach, we’re mimicking what occurred in 2007,” she said. “That year we ended up with eight nests. This year we have 11 so we’re a little ahead of 2007. We expected it to be a slow year. Basically, turtles nest every other year – 2007 was a slow year and 2009 is relatively slow. Last year was wonderful. We had 44 nests.”

On Sanibel and Captiva, the number of hatchlings this year are nearly identical to 2008. Through Monday, volunteers have identified 70 hatchlings thusfar, besting last year’s total of 69 through July 27.

However, the overall number of nests discovered on the islands has decreased dramatically – 395 through the same date in 2008 and 255 this year.

Help from the public

Haverfield said residents and visitors have been mindful of keeping their pets and children away from nests.

“People are mindful and respectful of the quartered off nest sites,” she said. “But, we still have significant problems with beach furniture being left out on the beach and with lights that are not in compliance. We’re concerned about the nests that will be hatching that are closer to the more populated area of Fort Myers Beach. The two nests that have hatched so far have come from Little Estero Island where it is quite dark.”

But what happens to those who do tamper with the erratic yearly number of nests or simply do not comply with the basic rules and regulations during the sea turtle nesting period?

“Typically, the way we handle it at first is we try to talk to the people and let them know (about the rules),” said Keith Laakkonen, the Town of Fort Myers Beach Environmental Sciences Coordinator. “Despite all the information out there, there are still people who do not know about turtle nesting season.

“The first step we take is we try to talk to them. The second step, if we are not able to get them to comply voluntarily, is to initiate a hearing. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had to do that. Typically, people understand there are minor things that they can do.”

According to the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, sea turtles are protected by Federal and State laws. It is against the law to touch or disturb nesting sea turtles, hatchlings, or their nests.

“That’s key because, not only is it town rules, it’s under state rules,” said Laakkonen. “It’s also listed under the Endangered Species Act. If there is a large issue, it could become a federal issue.”

Off to the races

According to Haverfield, sea turtle hatchlings somehow know when to choose the right time for their race to the Gulf. She said “swim frenzy” means “for the next 24 hours or so they swim very quickly offshore away from the onshore fish and birds that feed on them and those first 24 hours are very crucial to a hatchling’s life…if they make it that far.

“They swim a mile per hour, so after 24 hours they are 24 miles offshore,” she said. “That’s where the Sargasso seaweed floats by and that’s what they are looking for out there. They crawl into that floating mass and find refuge, food and camouflage there. Meanwhile these floats are carried off into the Caribbean and some are propelled into the Atlantic. Twenty to 50 years later they return.”

There is an uncertainty on how a hatchling which, by then, has grown into a mature loggerhead or an endangered kemp’s ridley, green, hawksbill or leatherback- finds his/her birth spot on the return trip.

“When they crawl out of their nest and onto the beach, we believe they identify or make a memory or imprint the latitude and longitude of their location,” said Haverfield. “They may also use biochemical processes or celestial cues. We have no idea how they find their way back to their native beaches 20 to 50 years later. But, they do. That has been genetically studied. It’s been studied through tagging programs. That’s a given.”

Of the 11 roped-off nests so far this year, nine remain unhatched. Last year, Turtle Time, Inc. recorded 96 nests from Bunchee Beach to Bonita Beach.

“We tend to have peaks throughout the season,” said Haverfield. “The first peak is usually sometime in the second weekend in May, while the highest peak usually occurs in mid-June. Another peak is by the end of June with one in early July and another one towards the end of July. We’re still expecting a few more nests.”

According to Haverfield, turtle nesting tends to be cyclical.

Haverfield said after the first Beach nest hatched on July 8, Turtle Time Inc. waited three days and then excavated. The incubation period is on average 55 to 65 days. FMB tends to be a little longer because the sand is cooler here.

“We are required to wait three days according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules and regulations for sea turtle conservation,” said Haverfield. “This gives any hatchling the chance to emerge on its own.”

Impact of temperature

According to Haverfield, temperature plays a major role in the life of a sea turtle.

“Temperature is what initiates their mating instinct when the Gulf waters get a certain temperature, that’s when they congregate to mate,” she said. “Temperature determines the sex of sea turtles. Approximately half way through incubation, the cooler the nest, the most likely you’ll have males.

And, temperature is what guides them ultimately to emerge from a nest. That’s why hatchlings 99 percent of the time do not hatch during day time. They wait underneath the sand surface until that sand is nice and cold. That’s usually several hours after sunset.”

Conservation helping, too

After years of conservation effort, there are more and more hatchlings out there instead of crushed on the road, reported Haverfield.

“Because of the turtle extruder devices and other conservation measures, we expect the loggerhead turtle population to possibly increase in the years to come,” she said. “That’s our goal. There was some talk of re-evaluating the loggerhead and placing it on the endangered species list because the numbers have plummeted. We’ll see what happens next year. If we’re following the trend and following the bell curve, then next year should be better than 2009.

According to Laakkonen, there is a nest in the Time Square area at Lynn Hall Park, probably the busiest spot on the island.

“We are working with the Time Square businesses to, basically, help us out with that nest,” he said. “We’re trying to give them as much light as they need. We still need their help with getting some of those lights turned down a little bit so we don’t have disorientation (from the expected hatchlings).”

Haverfield still gets calls from people saying they have found a sea turtle and are trying to return it to the Gulf.

“It’s usually a land-oriented gopher tortoise,” she said. “You have to notice the claws.”