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Sea turtles get by with a little help from their friends

By Staff | Aug 27, 2009

Environmentalists and nature-friendly politicians put a great deal of energy and time into saving and protecting endangered and threatened sea turtle species.

Countless hours are spent on crafting well-meaning laws and perhaps an even more infinite amount of time is devoted to guarding sea turtle nests and monitoring them.

This for the most part is done by conservation-minded and compassionate volunteers who want to make a difference in the lives of sea turtles.

On Sanibel and Captiva, nesting season which begins in May is just about wrapping up. During the nesting period, staff and volunteers from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation worked hard to ensure that nests are staked and roped up to alert the public of their presence. Throughout the nesting months, volunteers and staff check the sites and monitor progress and look for signs of predators or trouble.

Sea turtles found on the islands include mostly loggerheads. But this year in a rare find, a nest of leatherback turtles was uncovered.

Amanda Bryant, the SCCF turtle program director and biologist, said she depends on the volunteers to help her keep track of the nests and keep them as safe as can be.

This means protecting the threatened species from fire ants, ghost crabs, raccoons and humans who can unknowingly disrupt, thwart and endanger nesting moms and her eggs.

For some volunteers like Mark Wells, a Captiva resident, helping with the turtle nesting program is about being a good steward and caring person.

Wells has been a volunteer for 10 years. He and wife Debbie look forward to going out in the mule – a sort of golf cart vehicle to rove the northern Sanibel and Captiva beaches for turtle nests.

“It’s kind of neat protecting the the turtles,” Wells said.

Wells, a protector by nature lights up at the sight of a loggerhead turtle nest with the tell-tale tiny tracks nearby. That could mean only one thing. The eggs below the sand hatched. During a recent monitoring morning, Wells maneuvered the mule up to several hatched sights. In two cases Wells used his years of accrued turtle knowledge to know where and when to dig.

At one site his face crinkled at a trail of teeny, tiny flipper prints going in circles and then finally ending at the sea. Relieved that hatchlings made it to sea but concerned never the less for the spots where the tracks veer off near a hole in the sand and just vanish. “Ghost crabs,” he said. A feeling of sorrow washed over as the thought of the hatchlings barely out of the shell never got a chance to make it to sea.

But there was not much time for sentimentality as Wells calculated more hatchlings to still be buried in the nest. They had to come out before the Florida sun heated the sand too much and killed the hatchlings.

Wells kneeled down in front of the staked off nest and began to dig with his hands. In moments pint sized sea turtles emerged from the sand – one still with yellow yolk on his body. Wells smiled at the newly hatched turtles and gently scooped them into a bucket filled with water and sand. Before leaving the sight he counted all of the eggs – hatched unhatched and unfertilized. He jotted down numbers and notes in a catalog and then placed the bucket of hatchlings in the back of the mule to be released later that evening.

“Chances are better of making it when it’s dark,” he said.

During the trip, Wells shook his head at the sites of beach furniture and garbage strewn about. He put a reminder about sea turtle nesting season safety on one set of furniture. Lawn or beach furniture left on the sand can confuse turtles or worse snare them.

Wells and the other 125 volunteers sense of responsibility and care for the hatchlings is important to the program’s success, said Bryant. Their knowledge is key to teaching the community how to live on the islands during nesting season.

“They do as much as education as they work,” Bryant said. “There’s no way i can personally reach all of the public with out the volunteers. This programs runs because of the volunteers.”

Bryant said the volunteers put in an average of 3,000 hours during the six-month nesting season. This is the equivalent of three full-time staff members, in addition to Bryant.

Volunteers like Wells make it possible for Bryant and other scientists to make sound decisions regarding the turtles based on the data they collect during their monitoring. And the volunteers help keep predators away that otherwise could be lost.

But in the end ultimately the reptiles must fight for their own survival. Volunteers and staff make a big difference but the turtles must make the long stretch from their nest to the sea without being snagged by a ghost crab, bird or other predator.

And those that make it to the sea then must be able to elude marine and other predators.

“We hope they grow to be adults,” Bryant said.

Most of the sea turtles found on the islands are loggerheads, though Bryant and SCCF staff got a big surprise when they found a leatherback turtle nest recently. They are on the federal list of endangered species. There were 94 hatchlings in the nest.

“It was the most exciting thing to happen here in a couple of seasons,” Bryant said.

Life is truly a struggle for the sea turtles.

She said they have a one out of 1,000 chance of making it to adulthood.

So far this nesting season on the islands has appeared good, Bryant said. There have been 9,601 hatchlings produced on Sanibel. And last year was a good year too. But Bryant said two good seasons is not indicative of success or anything for that matter. It takes about five years to know if there is any marked improvement, Bryant said.

Overall sea turtles are experiencing a 40 percent decline in Florida. This decline has been happening for the past decade.

“It’s worrisome,” she said.