Sea Turtle nesting season now under way
Even though the bar is set high after a record-breaking sea turtle nesting season in 2015, the hope is that trend will continue on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva for 2016.
A combined 655 nests were recorded by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation last year, both on the east (120 nests) and west (403) sides of the island, with Captiva harboring 132 nests.
Those nests produced over 25,460 hatchlings (counts from the Oct. 7, 2015 SCCF stats), which is a very healthy sign for sea turtle numbers in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We are hopeful the reason we are seeing the increase (in nesting) is due to the conservation efforts which have been going on the last 30 years,” said SCCF sea turtle program coordinator Kelly Sloan. “It takes up to 20 to 30 years for a female sea turtle to start reproducing, so hopefully we are starting to see the payoff.”
In the past, the sea turtle nesting season began May 1, but with recent telltales that the Loggerhead females are coming onto the beaches early to lay their eggs, the date was moved up to April 15.
That means, of course, it’s lights out on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva. Interior lights should be shielded with curtains, and avoid all flashes, flashlights or any kind of lights on the beaches when the sun goes down.
Lights disorient the hatchlings when they emerge from the nest, which they should start hatching two months after the female has laid the eggs. Hatching season will start around June and run through September through October.
Lights can also scare off the female sea turtle as it makes its way up the beach, so that’s the reason to keep the lights off at the start of the season.
Last year, according to the SCCF stats in October, there were a total of 1,320 false crawls, which are tracks by female sea turtles turning around back to the ocean and not laying its eggs in a nest. False crawls can be caused by anything alarming or scaring the female, such as lights or noises.
Another threat to female sea turtles venturing on the beaches to lay its eggs are deep holes. Since sea turtles can’t crawl in reverse, a hole can be a deadly obstacle.
“Please fill in all your holes if you dig them on the beaches,” Sloan added.
A new program being undertaken by SCCF is its night-tagging project. Two additional technicians were added to staff to walk the beaches all night seeking the female sea turtles coming up to lay their eggs.
“One of the reasons we are starting the night time tagging project, is to see why we are having such a high amount of nesting on the east end,” Sloan said. “It could be a habitat preference by sea turtles, so we will tag and identify reoccurring females.”
Sloan added the team of night taggers will not interfere with the nesting process, which can take up to two hours, but instead will tag the sea turtles on their way back to the ocean.
A flipper tag and a microchip will be used in the tagging process.
“It’s really exciting being on the beach at night and seeing it all happen,” Sloan said. “Also, if we are on the beach at night, it may scare away any coyotes and we can also educate beach goers about lights out.”
A good sign, thus far, is the low amount of reported boat strikes this season. Last year, there was an unusually high amount of boat strikes, so awareness will be key as the season progresses.
“We recommend you having a look-out on board, who can help spot sea turtles,” Sloan said. “And just slowing down, especially within about two miles of the shoreline, because the sea turtles are hanging around and getting ready to nest.”
With April 15 past, hatchings will start meandering out of their nest and on the beaches in about two months. There is an average of 110 eggs laid in each nest.
Much like their mother’s instinct, the majority of the time, the hatchlings will break out of their shell at night, which is determined by the temperature on the outside.
The cool weather during the evening hours is a sign for the hatchlings to start their quest from nest to sea.
The hatchlings will be drawn by the brightest light on the beach, in which throughout history, has been the moonlight glittering off the ocean waters.
But with human coastal development running rampant over the last several decades, artificial light has trumped the glare of the moon, thus setting the hatchling off course and many times, away from the ocean.
The energy the hatchlings use comes from a yolk sack attached underneath their bellies. The gas tank lasts up to three days, after that, the hatchling had better be in the water, or they will weaken and become dehydrated, which leads to death.
The odds that a hatchling makes it to adulthood is one in 1,000.
The Loggerhead sea turtle is listed as a threatened species, which means they have the possibility of becoming endangered within the foreseeable future under the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act.
They are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, with the biggest threat to the species being fishing gear (longlines or gillnets) and the second biggest threat is the loss of nesting habitat due to coastal development, predation of nests and human disturbances, which include lighting.
Sanibel also has Green and Leatherback sea turtles nesting on its beaches, but those are much more rare than Loggerheads.
SCCF has about 110 volunteers on hand to be walking the beaches in the mornings to mark nests and crawls.
“We also received funding to add on another seasonal technician to provide field support, so there will be more staff on hand to help out,” Sloan said. “There are also more permitted volunteers, who took the extra training, which is exciting.”
Last year, screens to deter coyote depredation worked very effectively. There were under five reported instances where coyotes were able to dig around the screens.
To learn more about the upcoming sea turtle nesting season or to volunteer, visit the SCCF website at or call 239-472-2329.