Counting sea turtle nests, crawls SCCF volunteers’ specialty
It’s Aug. 12, and for Marilyn and Philip Klaren, it’s their 23rd wedding anniversary.
Instead of spoiling each other or sleeping in on their special day, the duo is up bright and early, walking down the beach of Gulfside City Park on Sanibel, fighting noseeums and picking up trash left by other beach-goers.
“We got married at the Lighthouse (on Point Ybel) and we have made it back there for every one of our anniversaries,” said Marilyn, as she bends over and picks up a discarded straw on the beach in the darkness of the early morning.
But the Klarens would not want to be anywhere else, even on their anniversary.
That’s because they are an important component to a very special cause which is near and dear to many people who either live on Sanibel or visit the island.
The Klarens are two of a volunteer corp. for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), which helps document sea turtle crawls, false crawls, nests and hatched nests.
With it being a record-breaking year for sea turtle nests, volunteers like the Klarens were that much more important to the SCCF.
“Volunteers are essential, dedicated assets to assuring the future of sea turtles on our islands,” said SCCF Education Coordinator Kristie Anders. “It is not just the pre-dawn monitoring of nest activity, it’s their service as ambassadors to these endangered species because volunteers converse with tens of thousands of visitors every year.”
Since May 1, the Loggerhead sea turtles (including some Greens and Leatherbacks) have far eclipsed last year’s all-time record with 636 nests made on Sanibel and Captiva, with 1,312 false crawls recorded.
In the Klaren’s east end zone they patrol, 118 nests were made, with 298 false crawls. The Sanibel west zone has been at an all-time high with 386 nests and 797 false crawls. Captiva has produced 132 sea turtle nests and 223 false crawls.
All of the stats were as of Aug. 10, as reported by the SCCF and collected by their volunteers.
Of the 636 sea turtle nests laid, 202 of them have hatched, and that’s exactly what the SCCF volunteer walkers are mainly looking for now, since nest making has slowed down dramatically.
But it doesn’t matter what job the Klarens are asked to do, they enjoy the time spent on the beach to themselves, while doing their part to help preserve a specie which is endangered.
“It’s encouraging,” Marilyn Klaren said of the major uptick in sea turtle nests. “Just to think of the whole process it takes to make and lay eggs in a nest, it’s just heartwarming to be a part of.”
Walkers like the Klarens usually arrive on the beaches around the 6 a.m. hour. They look for sea turtle crawls, which resemble “tractor tire tracks in the sand” and document them, which are reported back to SCCF sea turtle coordinator Kelly Sloan.
They also search for sea turtle nests during the prime part of the season, which is usually between May 1 and the end of July or early part of August.
Currently, the second stage of the walkers’ jobs comes into play with the seeking of hatched nests, which is represented by an indentation of the marked nests.
“We will document it and report back to the permitee,” Philip said.
The Klarens have been volunteer walkers now for the last five years, doing it three times a week, meaning they have seen numerous gorgeous sunrises, plenty of turtle crawls and many laid nests.
It works perfectly for them and their schedule, since they run a small cleaning and maintenance business on the island, while living off island in Fort Myers.
“One week we walked this year, we saw nine sets of tracks, which is a bit unusual having that many,” Marilyn said. “Usually, we see three to four sets of crawls or false crawls a week. When you can’t find a chamber or nest, it’s usually a false crawl.”
Each walk takes around a half hour to 45 minutes and covers 1.5 miles.
The most unique circumstance happened last year, when the Klarens saw a boat floating unmanned near the lighthouse. After calling the police, it was found out the operator of the boat fell out of it and the boat floated by itself near the lighthouse shore.
“We’ve seen a lot of weddings and met a lot of nice people walking on the beach who are curious about the turtle program and we share with them what we know,” Marilyn said. “We hand out cards explaining what the turtle program is all about.”
Another job, which isn’t asked of them, but the Klarens do anyways, is pick up trash. Carrying a five gallon bucket, the pair usually fill it up with discarded items such as beach toys, straws, plastic bags and beach towels.
The volunteers will walk the beaches from May 1 to Oct. 31. After they reach the end of their zone, they will call the scheduled “permitee” to report what they saw.
The permitee, who is trained and certified by the SCCF, will come out to their zone to inspect to see if it is a sea turtle nest and also the false crawls.
With the nests hatching now, the permitees’ jobs will include inspecting a hatched nest, counting the hatched eggs and the eggs which didn’t hatch.
On this day, France Paulsen and Irene Nolan meet the Klarens at nest No. 70, which is on the east end near Gulfside City Park beach.
“Nest No. 70 hatched a few days ago and a walker went by and saw the depression and reported it,” Paulsen said. “I will wait two to three days after it was reported that the nest hatched, then go dig it up and see what happened.”
If Paulsen discovers there are still some stragglers left in the nest, she will wait another two to three days before returning.
Nest No. 70 was a healthy nest, it was far enough inland that it wasn’t washed out by the tide. The nest was laid on June 18, and hatched approximately Aug. 8-9.
Paulsen digs a couple feet down and starts pulling out hatched eggs and eggs which didn’t hatch, either due to not being fertilized or being cracked.
“Sometimes I will find some alive little guys, stuck in the bottom, or stuck in some roots,” Paulsen said. “They will either be released now or at nighttime.”
The first fertilized egg which didn’t hatch is yellow and has a strong odor to it, signifying it was dead.
“Normally, in an ideal nest, most of the eggs will have hatched,” Paulsen said. “The nest can also have anywhere from 70 to 140 eggs in them.”
Screens have also been placed on top of the nests to deter coyotes from digging them up and eating the eggs. Thus far, Paulsen thinks the deterrent has worked.
“We don’t have all the reports, which are done at the end of the season, but my impression, the screens are working,” Paulsen said. “I am not coming across as much depredation as I have in the past.”
At the end of Paulsen’s dig, which takes around 10-15 minutes, she uncovers 42 eggs which did not hatch, including six which had cracks in them. But more importantly, she counts that 82 eggs did hatch and the hatchlings successfully made it out of the nest and hopefully out into the ocean.
“More made it out that didn’t, so that is good,” Paulsen said.
With the record season easily surpassing last year’s mark, hours have been rising, as well, for the volunteers.
“I have been doing this for five years, walking the first few years,” Paulsen said. “This year, I work two days a week and have put in about 300 hours since May 1.”
But just the chance of being able to see a sea turtle come ashore to lay eggs, or the outcome of hatchlings boiling out of the nest, is worth all the volunteer hours.
Nolan, who has been volunteering for the last 14 years, has seen just two mother sea turtles on shore digging nests during that time, while never seeing hatchling come bounding out of the nest.
“It’s rare, very rare,” Nolan said. “It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The time put into helping the sea turtles overcome the odds of almost becoming extinct, makes it well worth the early morning hours and all the noseeum bites.
“We love doing it,” Paulsen added. “It’s wonderful seeing the progress we have been able to make over the years. It’s been amazing.”
To offer volunteer service for the SCCF, visit their website at or call 239-472-2329.