Kemp’s ridley sea turtle kicks off nesting season
One of the islands’ favorite visitors are back again to pick just the right spots on the beaches.
Sea turtle nesting season recently kicked off, and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and approximately 100 volunteers will survey miles of sand every morning through October to keep an eye on the turtles’ activity, nests and hatchlings. The monitoring program began on Sanibel in the 1950s.
Kelly Sloan, the coordinator for SCCF’s Sea Turtle Program, explained that it started with Charles Lebuff and Caretta Research. The monitoring program was later transferred to SCCF in 1992.
“It makes it one of the longest-running sea turtle programs in U.S. history,” she said.
The program helps to compile data, which state and federal agencies rely on for trend analyses.
“Sea turtles are threatened, so they need all the help they can get,” Sloan said.
The program operates from April 15 through the end of hatching season, typically late October.
The coverage area is split between the east and west ends, which are separated by Tarpon Bay Road and divided into multiple zones. In the east end, trained volunteers are split among the zones, with each assigned one morning patrol per week. Seven days a week, people are combing the sand for activity.
“It’s a little over 100 (this year). Twenty of them are new, which is amazing,” she said of those giving their time to the program. “We have a really enthusiastic new volunteer group – they’re great.”
It all starts as soon as the sun is up, with volunteers reporting back no later than 7:30 a.m.
“There’s also Turtle Permittees,” Sloan said of the work in the east end.
Permittees are volunteers who have undergone additional training – one year’s worth – with the SCCF and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in order to perform their job.
When the volunteers report back daily on what they observed, it is to the permittees.
She noted that the work in the west end operates differently.
“There’s no walkthroughs involved,” Sloan said.
She explained that the west end of Sanibel and all of Captiva are monitored solely by permittees.
“They go out on vehicles and patrol seven days a week,” Sloan said.
At the start of season, volunteers report back on any new crawls or activity they find.
“The light casts really long shadows, which makes it easier to see the crawls,” she said of one reason why the surveying takes place in the morning. “And it gets really hot for people on the beach.”
Activity is also easier to spot because there are no human footprints or tracks yet.
The early morning shift also comes into play if a nest has to be relocated.
“The only reason we’re allowed to relocate the nest is if it’s going to get washed over every single day by the tide,” Sloan said, adding that relocations must be done within 12 hours by only SCCF staff.
She noted that relocations are not common, however.
“It’s really rare,” Sloan said. “We have a small tidal range here.”
She estimated that about 10 were conducted last year. Last year, SCCF staff also found themselves relocating other nests for a separate reason. The eggs had been laid in the dredging project area.
Once a nest is observed, it is staked, numbered and recorded. Volunteers and permittees then check on every nest in their assigned zone on their assigned day, monitoring them until the hatchlings arrive.
“The most common, by far, is the loggerhead sea turtle,” Sloan said of the nesting species.
“We’re just one of those historical nesting sites,” she added.
Green sea turtles also nest on the islands.
“We have been seeing more and more greens nesting,” Sloan said, explaining that it is interesting because greens and leatherback sea turtles typically nest on east coast of Florida.
The first nest this year came from a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle on April 16.
“That’s the only one so far,” she said on April 19. “It’s on the very west end of Sanibel.”
It is the third time in the program’s history that the species has nested on-island.
Kemp’s turtles typically nest in southern Texas and Mexico.
“So it’s always really fun to document a Kemp’s ridley nest in our area,” Sloan said.
After a waiting period, each nest is inventoried for how many eggs hatched versus did not.
“To evaluate the success,” she said.
Last year, there were 684 nests counted on Sanibel – 650 loggerhead and 34 green; Captiva had 189. Sanibel’s loggerhead and green counts surpassed previous records for the fourth consecutive year.
Sloan explained that sea turtles take about 20 to 30 years to reach maturity.
“We’re hopeful that the years of conservation efforts are finally paying off,” she said.
The islands are also seeing record hatchlings.
“Over 43,000 hatchlings emerged from our beaches last year,” Sloan said.
She also attributed the success to the islands’ efforts to keep the conditions ideal for nesting.
Some of those efforts are things residents, businesses and visitors can do to help.
“Artificial lighting is the biggest threat to sea turtle nesting,” Sloan said. “Sea turtles, naturally, when they’re on the beach, use the reflection of the moon off the sea to find their way back to the water.”
Turn off or shield all lights that are visible from the beach, including closing window blinds. Do not use flashlights or cell phone lights on the beach. If light is necessary, use amber or red LED bulbs.
She explained that artificial light guides them away from the water.
“Furniture on the beach is a big thing,” Sloan said. “They can really easily become entangled in it.”
She noted that turtles cannot move backward, so they go forward and end up more entangled.
Deep holes left in the sand after a day at the beach are also an issue.
“They can, obviously, fall in and get stuck or hurt,” Sloan said.
Anyone with questions or concerns about nesting or injured turtles can contact the SCCF Sea Turtle Hotline at 978-728-3663 (978-SAVE-ONE). For more about the program, visit www.sccf.org.
Those interested in volunteering next year can also find information on the website.