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Times of the Islands Magazine

Sea Turtle Nesting Season has Begun in Southwest Florida: How You Can Help

May 08, 2018 11:43AM ● By Kevin

A baby sea turtle. Photo courtesy of Conservancy of Southwest Florida on Facebook.

Sea turtle nesting season has begun in Southwest Florida as of the first of the month, and continues on through Oct. 31. Sea turtles are among the world’s oldest creatures and are made up of seven species.

Sea turtle monitoring on Sanibel originally began in the late 1950s, according to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's (SCCF) website. It is one of the longest running monitoring programs in the country. The program was transferred to the SCCF in 1992 when Caretta Research, Inc. - the company that started the monitoring process, alongside Charles Lebuff - disbanded.

"Every year in late spring, loggerhead sea turtles arrive on Sanibel and Captiva for the nesting season," the website says. "The SCCF Sea Turtle Program surveys 18 miles of beach, from the Sanibel lighthouse to Blind Pass, every morning from April – October."

More than 100 volunteers help with the daily search for tracks that the sea turtle left behind when she emerged from the sea the night before.

"Sometimes sea turtles go back to the water without laying eggs, which is known as a non-nesting emergence," the website continues. "If we determine that the turtle successfully laid eggs, the nest is watched over until the eggs hatch and there are signs of the hatchlings crawling to the Gulf. Storms, humans and predators may disturb or destroy the nests, reducing their survival. After the nests hatch they are evaluated to determine the number of hatchlings that successfully emerged."

In addition to many threats that endanger the sea turtles' voyage, there is a toxic red tide algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico just off of Southwest Florida’s shoreline. Dave Addison, senior biologist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples says manatees are also even more so adversely affected by the red tides.

"They've documented deaths, diseases, and rehab with turtles that have been affected by red tide," he said. However, not all sea turtles are affected.

"We had one adult that had a satellite tag on," he explained. "She was staying off of Sanibel Island and was there through a really nasty red tide event. We saw her the next year on the beach. She got through it OK. That's certainly not the case for every turtle. There are a whole lot of variables we don't understand as to how turtles will be affected by this."

Addison said that the length of time a red tide affects wildlife depends on the extent of the bloom and prevailing winds that might blow it ashore.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been monitoring sea turtle nesting on Keewaydin Island since 1983. The initial objective of this was to protect sea turtle nests from being predated by raccoons. Over the years, they tagged turtles with flipper tags, each with a unique number, to keep track of them. They've tracked some of them for close to 30 years, giving them a long data set on reproductive activity. Through partnerships with universities and state agencies, it became a long-term monitoring and research project that is one of the longer- running programs in the U.S.

For people looking to help sea turtles survive this season, there is a county ordinance that requires people to turn off decorative lights and put curtains up if their house faces the beach.

"Sea turtles like to nest on darkened beaches," Addison said. "When they start to hatch, the hatchinlings find the brightest spot on the horizon. If you have a decorative light or security lights on, the turtles will go to that light and waist a lot of energy. They could possibly get eaten by predators before they get to water."

There are also turtle friendly lights residents can use that will illuminate some of the area, but won't distract turtles from what they need to do.

Beach furniture can also be problematic for the sea turtles' voyages.

"I can't explain it, but turtles have a tendency of getting tangled up in this stuff, dragging it back in the water, and finding themselves with it in the water," Addison said. "They'll get disoriented without nesting, as well. Residents need to keep stuff off the beach during this season."

If you happen to see a turtle nesting on the beach, it is advised you stay away from it and let it go about its business. If you have a camera, don't take flash photography near it. That could scare it off the beach.

Finally, if you happen to see a dead turtle or one that looks like it's in trouble, either call the county, or call the conservancy, so someone can record the event.

For more information, visit the city of Sanibel's website, the SCCF's website, or the conservancy's website.