by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez
Record breaking Loggerhead turtle nests were seen last year on Sanibel and Captiva. As sea turtle nesting season approaches this year, it is important to do your part in ensuring another successful season.
“Sea turtles have been around for hundreds of millions of years, so they were nesting on our beaches long before we arrived. And their population decline was because of us,” Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Coastal Wildlife Director Kelly Sloan said. “I like to think that we should be responsible for helping them succeed into the future.”
Dating as far back as the 1950s, sea turtle monitoring has been a part of the islands’ conservation efforts. In 1992, it was transferred to SCCF which monitors 18 miles of beach stretching from Sanibel to Captiva and Sloan runs the program.
Nesting season begins on April 15 and extends until the end of October.
Throughout these last few years, the islands have seen a steady increase in the number of nests found on the island. Last year there was a record-breaking number of Loggerhead nests on both islands – 656 nests on Sanibel and 265 on Captiva. Those were the highest numbers recorded by SCCF since 1996.
“It’s a testament to all the conservation measures that have been put in place over the past several decades,” Sloan said.
An important part of those measures is the numerous team protecting the nests up the East Coast, Sloan said. They offer protection against human impact—which previously included poaching— and predators.
The implementation of turtle excluder devices on shrimp traps have aided in the increase of number of turtles. The traps were killing the adult turtles and only a 1 in 1,000 hatchlings reaches adulthood.
Predators are a big part of the problem here in Florida. The sea turtle program works to keep the nests safe by locating them, flagging them, and screening them for protection mostly against coyotes. Volunteers are of immense importance in the process.
There are 100 SCCF volunteers who take time out of their day to help in the conservation of this endangered species. Divided into two categories— walkers and permit holders— they work in different ways to do so.
The walkers set out at morning light to track down new nests, while those with permits collect data from them and return at night.
Walkers go through a class training at SCCF where they learn about turtle biology, how to spot a nest, and then conduct a fake walk through to test their knowledge. Volunteers with permits must complete a course at the state level with the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
Longtime volunteer Irene Nolan has been a part of the SCCF Sea Turtle Program for the past 20 years. Her love for animals, and the excitement of the work has kept her coming back since she first participated.
“It’s just so interesting and you feel like you’re protecting nature,” Nolan said. “It’s just wonderful to be out in the beach early in the morning to. So, that’s why I participate, you know, I really enjoy it and lots of people at SCCF do too.”
Nolan began as a walker but is now a permit holder on the east and west end of Sanibel. Each morning she takes her jeep onto the beach with a team of walkers. Together they work on locating new nests and filling in holes and picking up garbage which are harmful for the turtles.
Once her morning is done, Nolan inputs the data gathered into the FWC database. It includes the number of new nests, hatching activity, detected problems, etc.
Throughout the years she has had many memorable moments, but is particularity fond of the hatchlings.
“You know every once in a while, they will hatch early in the morning and you can see it. That’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime watching them come out of the hole,” Noland said. “That’s a rare thing, not everybody gets to see that.”
She remembers being excited the first day she found a nest. Now, as a permit holder she sees that same excitement in walkers, who jump up and down when they find a nest, Nolan said.
As a longtime volunteer she has seen the continuous growth occurring within the program. There are more nests, more resources, and now she can drive a jeep around instead of walking.
More importantly, she has seen the fruits of the conversation being conducted by the program. The first year she volunteers there were only a few dozen nests on the beach, now there are upwards of 600.
As the season approaches, residents and visitors must play their own part in the mission to help the turtles. Sloan said the main rule they should follow is shutting off their lights when the sun goes down.
“Naturally when they hatch, they scan the horizon for the brightest point, which is on natural beaches the moon, and the reflection of the stars off the sea, and they head in that direction,” Sloan said. “We’ve introduced a lot of artificial lighting, and so sometimes they’ll go the wrong way thinking that they’re going to the water.”
This results in the hatchlings getting eaten by predators, becoming dehydrated, or getting smashed by cars.
Besides that, they should remember to fill in holes they’ve dug on the beach, pick up their beach furniture, and pick up the garbage they leave behind. These can become obstacles for nesting females and their hatchlings. The garbage can be seen as food.
If they happen to see a female nesting, or hatchling leaving their holes, it is important not to disturb them, Sloan said. They may be tempted to remove the coyote-preventative screening, but Sloan explained the openings are wide enough for them to escape without help. Removing them does more harm than good.
Nolan said touching them also messes with their natural GPS that allows the females to return when it’s their times to nest. As Sloan said, it is important for everyone to contribute in the protection of this endangered species.