Beaches Belong to The Turtles

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It’s Turtle Time!

As Turtle Time, Inc., begins its 31st year of monitoring local nesting sea turtles, this season starts out in an unusual fashion, due to beach closures from the COVID-19 pandemic. “With the absence of people, at least in the initial stages of turtle nesting season, hopefully we will have fewer false crawls,” reported Eve Haverfield, who founded the non-profit Turtle Time in 1989 to benefit marine turtles on Big Hickory Island as well as Bonita, Bunche and Fort Myers Beaches. “There will always be a few false crawls, as sometimes the mothers just decide it is not yet time, but we will closely monitor these this year to see if the lack of people makes a difference.”

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During the early morning Turtle Time beach patrol, the closed and empty beach shows no sign of turtle tracks or human footprints Photo by Jennifer Rusk.

Eve stressed that Turtle Time has permission to have its volunteers monitor turtles, although local jurisdictions currently ban people from beaches for coronavirus precautions. “The scientific data on turtles we collect is crucial, as is our steps to protect them and their hatchlings. We have the all-clear from the Town as well as the Lee County Sheriffs Office to do our early morning patrols, and our volunteers will have the appropriate uniform and identification.”

Official sea turtle nesting season is May 1 through October 31, but the State of Florida  for the past several years has requested that Turtle Time begin monitoring its beaches on April 15, due to recent environmental changes. “We do this per the recommendation from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC),” Eve explained. “The Marine Resource folks tell us the Gulf temperature is now 80 degrees; that is three degrees warmer over the past three days and the threshold for when turtles tend to start nesting, so we hope to find our first one soon.”

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Loggerhead Turtles are the most common sea turtle found in Florida. Adults can weigh up to 350 pounds and reach 3 feet in length. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Loggerhead turtles have almost exclusive domain on Fort Myers Beach, but while 2019 was a record-smashing year for their nests, they usually return to lay their eggs every other year, so Turtle Time reviews its 2018 statistics. “We had 297 total nests back then,” Eve recalled,” and that was up from 270 in 2016, but oddly enough, Fort Myers Beach ones were just 68 (2018) compared to 92 (2016). It is impossible to make predictions based on past seasons, however, as there are so many variables like hurricanes and water temperature and quality, so we will just see. In addition to our record-setting nests last year, we made another piece of history, with our first documented Green Turtle nest on Fort Myers Beach that joined 10 others on Bonita Beach, so it would be fun to find another this season!”

Amber LED Lighting

The primary bane to nesting turtles and their hatchlings is artificial light from beach properties, both outdoor lighting and light from windows without light-blocking coverings.

Turtles for millennia had quiet dark beaches to themselves, but now compete with businesses and coastal residents. These lights can prevent females from coming ashore or lead them to choose an inferior nesting location from which few hatchlings survive. Lights also disorient hatchlings, causing them to move toward that source and away from the Gulf, resulting in death from dehydration, exhaustion or automobiles. Eve cautioned, “Keep in mind that only 1 to 4 out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood and do not reach maturity for 30 to 50 years, so those turtles survive long odds.”

Turtle Time volunteers Chris and Jennifer Rusk began their beach checks for new nests and false crawls Wednesday. Photo by Jennifer Rusk.

She asks Fort Myers Beach residents to take proactive action now to protect turtles and hatchlings. “If you rent your place from spring to fall, please switch to Amber LED lights so when your renters turn them on, they are already turtle-friendly. Unfortunately, we had 15 total disorientations last year and sadly, 13 of those occurred on Fort Myers Beach. I know Amber LED lights are still a bit more expensive, but they last for such a long time that in the end they are actually cheaper. They provide plenty of light for your property, because we would never risk your personal safety to benefit turtles!”

In addition to Amber LED lighting, close drapes or blinds after dark. When beaches reopen and people begin sharing the beach with nesting turtles, Turtle Time reminds people to never shine a flashlight or use flash photography on sea turtles, move boats or beach furniture behind beach vegetation each night, keep dogs on a leash, and fill in any holes you dig into the sand as hatchlings and adult turtles can fall in and die. Anyone with property along the beach should make sure that beach furniture, boats and any other beach items are safely behind the vegetation line. If those things weren’t done when the beach closed, now is the time to move them.

Idle Speed for Turtles

Boaters are also cautioned that turtles are breeding in nearshore waters. With higher boat traffic than usual due to social distancing guidelines, boaters are asked to travel at idle speed within a half mile of the shoreline to avoid striking turtles.

To learn about Wildlife Friendly fixtures and Amber LED bulbs with links for purchase, visit bit.ly/lites4turtles  If you accidently hook or catch a sea turtle or find one in distress, being harassed or dead, immediately contact Turtle Time at 239-481-5566 or turtletime.org or the FWC Hotline at 888-404-3922. You can also call *FWC or #FWC on your cell phone or send a text to Tip@MyFWC.com. To report a turtle lighting violation contact the Fort Myers Beach Town Hall at 239-765-0202.

“Sea turtles are our canary in the ocean, so to speak,” concluded Eve. “What is good for them is good for us, so by protecting them, we are protecting ourselves, just like how we are all taking coronavirus precautions now.”