Bryant, Serage-Century demonstrate dedication of SCCF’s sea turtle nest volunteers
It seems like 2011 has been a banner year for sea turtles nesting on Sanibel and Captiva. According to statistics provided by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, 348 nests have been discovered this season (through Aug. 5), compared to 215 nests by the same date last year and 254 nests back in 2009.
The total number of hatches are on the rise, too, with 114 reported thus far this year. At this point in 2010, only 59 hatches had been documented.
Those numbers may appear to put a smile on the face of Amanda Bryant, coordinator of SCCF’s Sea Turtle Research & Monitoring Program, but it certainly doesn’t make her want to sit back and rest on her laurels.
In fact, it wants her want to do even more to help the species.
Last Thursday, Bryant and fellow sea turtle aficionado Dee Serage-Century headed out in the early morning hours to patrol the seven-mile stretch of shoreline – between Tarpon Bay Beach and Bowman’s Beach – monitoring activity in and around nesting sites staked by themselves and other program volunteers.
“We might have 10 nests to check in one day, and all of them are supposed to hatch around the same time,” said Bryant, sitting in the back of the Wildlife Habitat Management Jeep driven by Serage-Century. “It can get a little hectic at times.”
On Aug. 4, Bryant and Serage-Century checked approximately three dozen nesting sites, which according to their calculations were discovered about a month ahead of time this season, which typically runs from May 1 to Oct. 31. Because the temperatures of Gulf waters were warmer – 80 degrees F is the optimal mating temperature, Bryant explained – earlier this year, nests started being discovered in early April.
“We will probably finish a lot of our work earlier this year,” said Bryant.
This year, SCCF has joined efforts with the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Fla. to gather additional information about loggerhead sea turtles. Here on Sanibel, they are placing cages on top of several nest sites, collecting newborn hatchlings for further study. The project also involves monitoring the internal temperature of nests at regular intervals throughout the egg development process.
“Sanibel, for some reason, produces more males (sea turtles) than females,” said Serage-Century.
But before visiting the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in person, Bryant was a bit skeptical about collecting the young hatchlings in the name of science.
“Actually, these cages help protect the hatchling from predators,” said Bryant after placing one of the final two wire structures required for the study. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be on board with this program until I saw their lab for myself and saw how the turtles are treated. They do some amazing work.”
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, in addition to monitoring more than 500 nests annually, is a conservation, research and education facility which rescues, rehabilitates and releases more than 6,000 stranded hatchlings each nesting season. They instruct more than 10,000 school students in coastal and marine ecology every year and offer more than 50 programs for children, adults and families facilitated by qualified naturalists and biologists.
In addition, Florida Atlantic University’s onsite lab conducts valuable scientific research which enhances understanding of sea turtle behavior, physiology and ecology. This research creates practical applications in the conservation of sea turtles and other marine life.
During their sweep of the staked nesting sites, Bryant identified several factors which threaten the viability of the sea turtles’ eggs. Ghost crabs, fire ants and raccoons are most prevalent, in addition to nests which are laid too close to the incoming tides.
Serage-Century and Bryant, however, did a double-take when they happened upon an unusual sight: a large set of tracks running from the shoreline, up onto a raised patch of sand, then returning back to the water.
“These tracks are big!” said Serage-Century. “Could it be a green?”
“Yup, it’s definitely a green,” responded Bryant, returning to the Jeep for nest-staking supplies.
Only the fifth green sea turtle nest identified this year, both the tracks and the nest pit of the species are larger than those of the loggerheads. The ladies took photographs, made several notes in their daily log book and placed five stakes surrounding the rare nest location.
“Greens typically start nesting about a month after loggerheads do, so this is pretty much on time,” added Serage-Century.
Bryant also noted that during the current nesting season, there have been several instances of beachgoers interfering with the nesting attempts of sea turtles here on the islands. Nesting attempts have been abandoned due to beach furniture, tents, towels and other debris left along the shoreline, as well as a number of nesting attempts interrupted by uneducated beachgoers.
After a certain number of attempts, a sea turtle that has been unable to nest will eject its eggs in the water, so failed nesting attempts matter greatly, she noted.
Sea turtles are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to interfere with their nesting and hatching in any way. Things that fall under this category include:
Leaving furniture (chairs, umbrellas, etc.), tents, towels and toys on the beach
Approaching a nesting sea turtle (especially with a flashlight)
Interfering with hatchlings or using flash photography
Taking flash photographs of sea turtles
It is important to remember that the city ordinances require dark beaches and require all beachgoers to take everything off the beach by 9 p.m. These ordinances exist to protect sea turtles and ensure their continued survival for generations to come.
According to SCCF, sea turtles are easily disturbed by movement, lights and noise. If you encounter a sea turtle on a nighttime stroll, please keep a respectful distance – at least 150 feet – and watch quietly.
While none of the nests which were scheduled to be dug last Thursday yielded any live hatchlings, Bryant and Serage-Century did discover another atypical species along the sand: a Florida softshell turtle – which aren’t usually seen along Sanibel’s beaches – was found just south of Bowman’s Beach.
The cause for concern showed by both women was due to the turtle’s inability to close it’s mouth and overall lethargic appearance. Serage-Century picked up the turtle, placed it in a plastic container and rushed it to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife.
“We do the best we can because we are on the beach every day,” added Bryant, who bravely held the captive turtle in the cloth-covered bin during the short drive to CROW. “Coming across injured wildlife is part of what we do.”
Shortly after arriving at the veterinary hospital, a technician reported that the injured turtle – which was able to close it’s mouth upon arrival – had recently been a patient at CROW due to an unrelated injury. It was going to be kept at the facility for monitoring at least a couple of days.
Walking down the rear staircase at CROW, both ladies seemed genuinely happy to have been able to do their part in assisting a turtle in distress.
“All in a day’s work,” added Bryant.