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First-ever documented leatherback hatching on Captiva

By Staff | Jul 1, 2020

SCCF/KERRY SALATINO On June 28, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation documented the hatching of the first-ever leatherback sea turtle nest on Captiva.

On June 28, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation documented the hatching of a leatherback sea turtle nest on Captiva – a very rare occurrence for the Gulf coast of Florida.

SCCF volunteer permittee Kerry Salatino saw that the leatherback nest had hatched that morning and was able to photograph two hatchlings that were still making their way to the sea. One of the small black turtles, which are more than double the size of loggerhead hatchlings, fell into a hole that had not been filled in by beach-goers.

“Fortunately, Kerry was able to rescue it from the hole and help it get safely to sea,” SCCF Coastal Wildlife Director Kelly Sloan said. “These hatchlings also crawled towards the dunes before turning towards the sea because of artificial lighting. This is a great example of why it’s so important to fill in holes and turn off all lights visible from the beach.”

The hatching marked the first time a leatherback nest has been documented on Captiva, which also surpassed on June 28 its record for the most loggerhead nests ever recorded with 196.

“The nest was being invaded by fire ants, so we inventoried the nest immediately instead of waiting the standard three days,” Sloan said. “A total of 56 hatchlings made it to the Gulf of Mexico.”

SCCF/KERRY SALATINO Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields like other species of sea turtles, leatherbacks are covered with a firm leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs.

In 2009, a leatherback nest hatched on Sanibel, which was a first for all of Lee and Collier counties. The largest of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide, leatherbacks very rarely nest on Gulf coast beaches. In Florida, they normally nest on the Atlantic coast. Last year, about 1,100 leatherbacks nested in Florida, with most in Palm Beach and Martin Counties, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The first evidence of a leatherback this season was no April Fool’s joke as tracks were discovered on April 1 on Sanibel, before early morning beach monitoring began on April 15. On May 10, the SCCF Sea Turtle Team encountered a leatherback on Sanibel and named her Juniper.

“It has been really exciting to see such a giant and uncommon species on Sanibel,” SCCF Research Associate Andrew Glinsky said.

The leatherback sea turtle is larger, dives deeper, travels farther, and tolerates colder waters than any other sea turtle. Most average 6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds. At a little over 5-feet-long, Juniper is an average-sized leatherback.

“While we don’t have visual confirmation that the nest that hatched on Captiva was laid by Juniper, we are pretty confident these are Juniper’s offspring,” Sloan said, adding that the first documented leatherback nest was inundated by the tides and surf of Tropical Storm Cristobal and did not hatch.

SCCF/KERRY SALATINO One of the hatchlings had fallen into a hole that had not been filled in by beach-goers.

Leatherbacks also look distinctively different from other sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields, they are covered with a firm leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs.

In May, Sloan reached out to biologists with Florida Leatherbacks Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to researching leatherbacks that nest on the east coast of Florida. FLI’s Chris Johnson and Kelly Martin successfully placed a satellite tracking device on Juniper while she was nesting on Sanibel on May 19.

“This was an amazing opportunity to track a leatherback from a location never before tracked and gain valuable research data about her behavior and movements in the Gulf of Mexico,” Martin said.

Based on timing between nests, FLI biologists believe that Juniper may have laid nine nests this season. Their tracking shows that she swam as far north as Sarasota and out into depths of nearly 200 feet in the Gulf in-between nesting events.

Leatherbacks are listed as endangered in the United States. Only an estimated one in 1,000 to 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings will make it to adulthood.

“Thanks to all of you who help protect our hatchlings by turning off all lights visible from the beach, removing beach furniture, filling in holes, and keeping our beaches free of litter,” Sloan said. “With the Fourth of July holiday weekend coming up, it’s especially important to remember that we share the beaches with these ancient animals.”

To follow Juniper’s travels, visit www.trackturtles.com.

For more on SCCF’s sea turtle monitoring program, visit www.sccf.org/our-work/sea-turtles.