Turtle nest inventories under way
Last Saturday morning began shortly after the sun rose for a handful of sea turtle walkers with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Sea Turtle Program, who were excited to see what kind of results a loggerhead nest inventory would entail.
Permittee Irene Nolan pulled on her gloves before kneeling in the sand next to nest No. 7 near Casa Ybel Resort. After the stakes were taken down, the screen removed, she carefully started digging where the egg chamber had been laid.
“There’s a soft spot, where all of a sudden you go deeper,” she said of how she knows she hit the egg chamber.
Slowly as the depth of the hole grew deeper, Nolan began removing shells. As each egg shell was placed on top of the sand, the walker’s excitement grew as they mentally counted the number of hatchlings that made their way to the water.
The inventory revealed 122 eggshells – baby loggerhead sea turtles that made it to sea – and six eggs that did not hatch.
After the inventory was completed, recording such information as the number of eggshells, pipped live and dead, as well as unhatched damage, or undamaged, dead hatchlings and live hatchlings, all of the eggs were placed back in the hole.
Nolan said Florida Fish and Wildlife, who the inventory is recorded for, is all about keeping things the natural way, which is why the eggs are returned to the egg chamber. She said the eggs that were unhatched always go at the top of the hole.
The next stop, was nest No. 2, which was relocated during a high tide period. Nolan said people who were staying at Point Santos called SCCF when they saw the nest’s contents floating towards the water.
“People were catching the eggs and helping,” she said. “The eggs were floating down to the water.”
Thirty-eggs were saved and relocated higher on the sand. Nolan said SCCF was able to relocate the eggs because they were newly laid.
Before the inventory was done, she said three eggs had already hatched from the nest.
Shortly after Nolan began digging into the chamber, she quickly jumped up with a live baby loggerhead in her gloved hand running towards the water. A fire ant was found on the sea turtle, which she needed to remove by washing it off in the water.
As a permittee, Nolan is certified to verify the nest by digging into the chamber for eggs; screening the nest to prevent predators from harming the eggs, followed by putting four stakes into the ground roped off with tape to let the public know there is a protected sea turtle nest on the beach. Seventy-two hours after a nest hatches, permittees are certified to go back and do an inventory, which includes handling a baby sea turtle if found.
Nolan said Florida Fish & Wildlife want permittees to do a three day inventory after the nest hatched allowing all of the sea turtles to crawl out of the egg chamber on their own.
Permittee Phil Weyman said the baby sea turtle pips their egg, which in turn causes the fluid within the egg to leak out. Once that happens the eggs collapse. An air chamber is created to allow the babies to breath. He said the babies feed on the yolk as a source of energy as they take a couple of days to exit the chamber and head towards the ocean.
After the ant was removed, Nolan placed the baby sea turtle in a bucket. She instantly saw that the baby did not look fully developed due to its front flippers appearing to be folded over.
Unfortunately, it was reported by SCCF biologist that the baby did not live. SCCF Sea Turtle Coordinator Kelly Sloan said occasional deformities are natural in embryonic development.
The inventory of the nest resulted in six hatches, 26 unhatched eggs, two damaged and three dead pipped.
The last nest inventoried was the first nest found on the east end. This nest was unique, due to it being a 70-day dig. On average a nest will hatch around two months after laid. This particular nest still had no activity 70 days after it was initially found.
“If the top one doesn’t hatch, the others mostly likely won’t make it,” Nolan said.
This particular nest took on a lot of water during a storm that impacted the Sanibel beaches, which was determined by the amount of manatee grass surrounding the egg chamber.
“They can take a light wash over, but can’t stand a lot of water,” Nolan said of the eggs.
But the high tides, and high seas pushed too much water into the nest. As Nolan dug, the possible scenario panned out due to the compacted sand. One hundred and twelve eggs were found unhatched.
The morning also included finding a brand new loggerhead crawl and an egg chamber. Another nest in the east zone.
Nolan also checked the nests that had already been marked to see if any had hatched. Nest No. 6 in the east zone had showed signs of movement, which she went back and checked Tuesday morning.
As she began to dig, a small crowd made a circle around the hole to get an up-close and personal experience of an inventory. Nolan slowly pulled out egg shells, followed by unhatched eggs. The excitement intensified as Nolan found a live baby loggerhead sea turtle in the egg chamber, which was placed on the sand. The baby instantly started crawling before it was put into a bucket.
Due to the number of birds on the shore, and fishermen, Nolan made the executive decision to release the baby loggerhead once the sun went down later that day. The loggerhead would remain in the bucket with a layer of sand, and towel overhead to mimic the conditions of the egg chamber.
Nolan said they keep the bucket dark because the baby loggerhead will need to get a good deal of sleep before being released due to the straight 48 hours it will swim to safety.
The sixth nest had 84 unhatched eggs, 46 egg shells and the one live sea turtle.
Lynn Meline, one of the volunteer walkers joined Nolan Tuesday morning to see the results of an inventory, as well as accompany her while she recorded a new nest she found that morning.
Meline walks zone four on Monday, zone five on Tuesday and zone three on Friday. She said her family has been vacationing on the island for a long time and had witnessed SCCF volunteers verifying the nests.
“It’s been a bucket list item,” she said of joining the efforts this year.
Since Meline is a morning person, her morning walks on the beach in search of new sea turtle crawls was the perfect fit.
“It’s so calming in the morning,” she said.
History of the island’s
sea turtle program
As a kid, Charles LeBuff did some turtle work at the Naples Beach, monitoring nests and counting eggs, which further sparked his interest in sea turtles.
“I had the first sea turtle permit in Florida. I kept it for 40 years. I let it expire in 2012,” he said.
In May 1959, when LeBuff arrived on Sanibel, he began patrolling the beaches to prevent people from taking sea turtles and bothering the nests, an assignment that was part of his job as law enforcement and the refuge biologist at Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, later renamed to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
“We had federal authority for wildlife regulations,” LeBuff said. “It gave us the authority to protect sea turtles and their nests.”
In December 1959, Ding Darling made his last visit to the Lighthouse quarters, where LeBuff was living. A conversation over coffee drifted to sea turtles when Ding Darling said something had to be done to conserve the turtles and protect the young.
“That gave me a push to increase conservation efforts,” LeBuff said, which began his efforts in trying different techniques to keep raccoons from digging the nests, as well as protecting the overall success of the loggerhead sea turtles.
In June 1963, he began tagging nesting turtles, which was done primarily at night, seven days a week, in addition to working at the refuge. He said he developed a shell tag that was fitted to the turtle’s shell. They also used Monel tags from 1963 through 1991. Several hundred turtles were tagged on the Gulf and Atlantic coast.
“Ding Darling told me there would be community support for sea turtle conservation,” he said, adding that he got some friends together to help.
In 1968, Caretta Research was formed, involving more people, resulting in the expansion with the program. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation sponsored them, with all financial contributions going to them, and later granted to Caretta Research.
The following year, into 1970, the group operated a sea turtle head program on Tarpon Bay. LeBuff said they built tanks and took the young loggerhead sea turtles there due to their goal of raising them in captivity for a year to give them an opportunity to grow and avoid most predators.
The sea turtle farm, he said, was just about where the new SCCF Marine Laboratory is being build. Unfortunately it proved to be unsuccessful because of the cold weather, so it was shut down in 1971.
In 1973, Caretta Research incorporated and continued the program until 1991. At the height of Caretta Research, they had 14 projects on the Gulf and Atlantic Coast.
Throughout the years LeBuff and his team collected a great deal of data, including approximately 50 turtle’s weight. He said the heaviest one weighed 345 pounds.
When LeBuff retired in 1990 he found he wanted to explore other things during the summertime and turned over the remaining assets to SCCF in 1991 when Caretta Research dissolved.
“They have been doing a standup job ever since,” LeBuff said. “I think it’s the longest living sea turtle program. The greatest continuity of any other turtle program in the world. It’s the oldest program in the country.”
He recalled in 1970 from Blind Pass to the Lighthouse there were only 70 loggerhead nests, but in 1959 there were several hundred. The most he had seen was up to 250 nests throughout the years.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine 600 nests,” LeBuff said of this year’s season.