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Sea turtle numbers on local beaches on record pace

By Staff | Jul 14, 2015

Decades of work and conservation of the sea turtle population seems to be paying off, as record number of nests are being made on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.

For the second straight year, numbers of nests are on record levels, which signifies 30 years of conservation efforts are paying dividends for the sea turtle population.

“About 20-30 years ago, the conservation efforts began to help the sea turtle population and now, the hatchlings from that time are becoming of age to reproduce,” said SCCF sea turtle program coordinator Kelly Sloan. “It’s a good sign anyways, because it takes a long time to see the affects because they are such a long-lived animal.”

The number of sea turtle nests on Sanibel this season is 407. Last year’s record number of 411 is already nearing to be eclipsed. Of those 407 nests, 392 are Loggerheads, with the others being Green and Leatherback sea turtles.

On Captiva, 106 nests have been recorded, which is closing in on the record-number 179, which occurred in 2000.

“June and July are the biggest months (for egg laying), so the numbers probably will start fizzling out here in a little bit,” Sloan added. “There have been 30 nests which have hatched on Sanibel and 13 on Captiva. Knock on wood and keep your fingers crossed, we haven’t had any major storms yet, either, which can affect the nests.”

The peak of the nesting occurred in mid-June, so around mid-August is when the hatching peak time will occur.

“The temperature of the sand also governs the speed at which the embryos develop,” Sloan said. “The hotter the sand surrounding the nest, the faster the embryos will develop. Also, cooler sand has a tendency to produce more males, with warmer sand producing a higher ratio of females.”

The SCCF has also been putting screens over the nests, due to the coyote population on Sanibel. The majority of the screens have worked, except for nests by Blind Pass.

“It’s good we have this many nests, but we need to protect the nests and our goal is to get as may hatchlings out to sea as possible,” Sloan added.

One obstacle which is being met are hatchling disorientations, caused by lights on the beach, either by exterior or interior lighting.

There was a record number of disorientations last year, but only one has been recorded this season.

“My impression is that the beach is really dark now,” Sloan said. “Just remember, to pull your blinds and keep your interior lights shielded.”

There is a movement by the SCCF and the City of Sanibel to protect against the threat of lighting disorientation.

Hatchling sea turtles are guided to the ocean by an instinct to travel away from the dark silhouettes of the dune vegetation and toward the brightest horizon-light from the sky reflecting off the ocean.

Artificial lights near the beach can deter females from nesting and disorient hatchling sea turtles. Most hatchlings that wander inland will die of exhaustion, dehydration or predation.

Local ordinances in effect year-round prohibit both interior and exterior lights from illuminating the beach.

This year, the City of Sanibel received a $6,000 grant from the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Sea Turtle License Plate Grant Program, the City has initiated a new educational campaign, “After 9, it’s turtle time!”, to remind residents and visitors to close curtains and blinds and turn off lights after dark.

Grant funds were used to create and produce light switch stickers, static-cling window decals, and elevator wraps (posters).

These materials are currently being distributed free of charge to beachfront resorts, property owners and managers, and rental agencies for placement in beachfront units.

Although most summertime visitors to Sanibel receive some information regarding sea turtles at “check-in”, the goal of this program is to provide additional reminders at key locations-light switches, windows and sliding glass doors, and elevators-that helping sea turtles can be as easy as flipping a switch.

The City believes that this campaign, in coordination with longstanding efforts to enforce exterior beachfront lighting regulations, will reduce the number of disorientation events occurring on Sanibel’s beaches.

Disorientation from a variety of artificial lighting sources causes thousands of hatchling deaths each year in Florida and is a significant sea turtle conservation problem. In most cases, however, implementing solutions is relatively simple.

With nesting season also in prime time, adult sea turtles are hanging out near the coastline, directly in the wake of boats.

Six turtles have stranded with wounds consistent with boat strikes since April (April – June).

“Four of them were stranded around Father’s Day weekend, so it may be that there were more boats on the water for the holiday,” Sloan said. “We should continue to remind people to stay alert for turtles while boating, and have a lookout on board, especially since the adult females are close to shore for the nesting season.”

Other tips the SCCF give include:

n Slow down and stay alert to avoid sea turtles. Wearing polarized sunglasses can help you better see marine life in your path.

n When possible, minimize boating in the 1 km strip along the shoreline. Research indicates that adult loggerheads tend to concentrate in this area during the breeding and nesting season. If you need to boat within this area, please travel at idle speed so the sea turtles have a chance to dive out of your way. (Note: All areas within 500-feet of the beach are designated “idle speed” zones on Sanibel).

n Have a designated lookout on board. Be aware that sea turtle heads can look very similar to crab trap buoys.

n Obey all “No Wake” “Idle Speed” and “Slow Speed” zones, but realize that sea turtles are found everywhere, not just within the boundaries of these zones.

Sloan also gave a big shootout to all the volunteers who have been working long hours helping record and tape off and screen sea turtle nests on Sanibel.

“They have been working so hard with the busy season, it’s been great,” she said. “There also has been over 400 gallons of trash picked up on the east side (of Sanibel) by the volunteers.”

Other tips to help the hatchlings find their way to the ocean include fill in all holes on the beach and clean up all the beach furniture.

To find more information about the sea turtle nesting season, visit the SCCF website at www.sccf.org/content/143/Sea-Turtles.aspx.