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Captiva Memorial Library hosts SCCF sea turtle program

By Staff | Aug 5, 2010

Mark Wells, right, shows a sea turtle hatchling to (from left to right) Judith and Nathaniel Hunter, Louise Tuttle and Lucy Borschke as Debbie Wells, seated, looks on.

The Captiva Memorial Library ended their 2010 series of summer programs with a special visit from volunteers Mark and Debbie Wells of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Sea Turtle Monitoring Program.

The Wells gave attendees a complete lesson on sea turtles, their nesting and habits and what humans can do to protect nesting — and hatching — turtles.

According to Mark Wells, Florida carries 90 percent of sea turtles nesting on beaches.

“Sea turtles are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The population has decreased 40 percent in the last 10 years, but there isn’t much data that tells us why,” Wells said. Everything from pollution to wildlife and humans could be a factor in the population decline.

“The average sea turtle weighs between 200 and 400 pounds. When they’re out of the water and weigh 400 pounds — imagine hauling all of that weight up onto the beach, laying your eggs and going all the way back to the beach,” Wells said, later noting that it’s up to humans to keep the beach clear of debris, toys and furniture so as not to deter the mother turtle from laying her eggs.

Judith Hunter and Mark Wells hold up hatchlings for a photograph. Flash photography can be stressful to hatchlings, especially when they’re trying to find their way from the nest to the sea.

Human negligence often contributes to false crawls.

“A false crawl is when a turtle comes up on the beach, looks around and just doesn’t like where they are — either something is bothering them or the sand is too hard, there are numerous reasons — so they just turn around and go back into the water,” Wells said.

Human negligence is also a factor when hatchlings find their way out of the nest.

Artificial lighting is often confusing for hatchlings who, once they’ve freed themselves of the nest, start heading towards the brightest source of light on the beach — which should be the moon, not patio or street lights.

Even flash photography can disorient a baby sea turtle.

Judith Hunter looks on as Sara and Lucy Borschke pose for a quick snapshot with two baby sea turtles.

“This is why we try to educate people as much as we can,” Wells said.

But it’s not just humans who interfere with nesting season.

“Our biggest threat are ghost crabs. Local wildlife plays a big part in whether these turtles live or die,” Wells said.

Other predators such as ants, raccoons and even unleashed dogs can pose a huge threat to defenseless hatchlings and, according to the Wells, only one in 100 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. “Those aren’t very good odds.”

According to Wells, nesting numbers are, so far, down by half in comparison to last year, which only produced about 80 to 90 nests.

The beach patrol vehicle used by volunteers from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation to find and mark sea turtle nests.

“They’re not sure why, but we’ve had a lot of false crawls so far this season,” Debbie Wells said noting that there have been about 110 false crawls so far this year — more than double last year’s total.

Wells also addressed the oil spill and SCCF’s plan of action should oil reach Captiva and Sanibel.

“We have a less than one percent chance of seeing the oil spill here on Captiva,” Wells said. “If the oil does arrive, we would build a ten foot buffer around each nest and we would also put out cages to catch the turtles because we wouldn’t want them going out into the oil.”

As a special treat, the Wells brought along two sea turtle hatchlings that they had rescued from the bottom of a nest last Monday — a nest that yielded 104 healthy hatchlings in total. The Wells, who live in close proximity to the beach, told attendees that they would be releasing the two hatchlings after 9 p.m. that evening.

“We can help out on the land — but we have no control what happens out in the water,” Wells said.

Nathaniel and Judith Hunter get a closer look at a hatchling.

Island residents can do their part to help out on land by participating in the “Adopt a Nest” program through the SCCF. By adopting a nest with a tax-deductible contribution, you help defray the costs of the SCCF’s Sea Turtle Research and Monitoring Program.

For more information about sea turtles and adopting a nest, go to www.SCCF.org.