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Be on the lookout: Turtle nesting season has begun

By Staff | May 5, 2011

Photo by Judy Jones, SCCF volunteer. A loggerhead hatchling

Sea turtles are among the world’s oldest creatures. They have been on the planet for about 150 million years and have long fascinated people around the world.

“They are a long-lived animal,” said Amanda Bryant with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “That is why there are strong efforts to protect them.”

On Sanibel and Captiva, where the beaches provide a subtropical nesting area for threatened loggerhead and endangered green turtles, they come ashore to nest. Sea turtles spend most of their lives at sea.

“The males rarely come to shore,” said Bryant, who works with sea turtles through the SCCF. “There is little research on the males for that reason. The females are easier to research because they come ashore to nest.”

So, each year in Southwest Florida, beginning in May, females crawl ashore in the darkness to dig nests and typically lay an average of 100 eggs. There are two to three weeks between the females nesting, which is done one to six times each season. A turtles’ sex is not determined by genetics, as in most other animals and humans. It is determined by temperature – hot equals females, while cold tends to produce males.

Photo courtesy of SCCF The first turtle nest found by SCCF in 2010 on Captiva.

“Biologists have been studying this due to global warming,” explained Bryant.

Many weeks after the eggs are nested — also occurring at night — hatchlings will burst from the nests and begin to scramble toward water. Moving quickly from the nest to the water is critical for their survival since they are most vulnerable to predators while they are on land. That is why it is important keep lights near the beaches off or shielded during nesting season, which is between May and October.

“They look for the brightest horizon to guide them to the water,” said Bryant.

On a beach, the lighter seaward horizon guides hatchlings to the water. Artificial lights can confuse them and they wander inland, become disoriented and lost. They can soon die from dehydration, heat exhaustion, taken as prey or crushed on nearby streets. They can encounter numerous obstacles, like furniture, holes and people on the beaches.

“That is why we provide them with protection and care as much as we can manage,” added Bryant.

Sanibel and Captiva islands take seriously the effort to save these endangered species. Each day during nesting season, the SCCF patrols the 18 miles of Gulf beaches from the Sanibel Lighthouse to the tip of Captiva beginning at dawn. Nests are identified and marked for monitoring and protection. Later in the season, new hatches are evaluated and recorded. The statewide collection of data helps promote programs that improve the chances for sea turtles to survive.

“It is rewarding overall,” said Bryant about the work she and the SCCF volunteers does to help protect the sea turtles.

In an additional effort to help these threatened species, local coastal governments have adopted and enforce Sea Turtle Conservation Codes. Sea turtles are also protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as well as Florida statutes.

Other sea turtle facts, provided by SCCF:

o Sea turtles live their entire life in the ocean except when the female comes ashore to lay eggs. Males rarely leave the water.

o Adults can grow to more than 3 feet in length and weigh between 200 and 400 pounds.

o Female loggerheads emerge at night to lay from 50 to 175 leathery Ping-Pong ball sized eggs. The eggs will hatch 55 to 60 days later.

o Hatchlings weigh less than one ounce and are two inches long.

o Sea turtles have great underwater vision, but are nearsighted out of the water.