Biologist Norris Talks Turtles

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Breakfast On The Beach

The Mound House, Estero Island’s oldest standing structure owned by the Town of Fort Myers Beach and restored to its 1921 timeframe, is the community’s cultural and environmental learning center. It is a unique historic and archeological attraction that sits atop an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound directly on Estero Bay. Today it is a walk through time when the Calusa first set foot on this island all those years ago. In addition to the site itself, the Mound House offers a variety of programs for residents, visitors, and school groups, with six new events that debut this Spring, including “Breakfast On The Beach.”

The first “Breakfast On The Beach” occurred for roughly 15 people in the historic Newton House at Newton Beach Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard on Friday morning, May 12. Biologist Dexter Norris, the Mound House Environmental Educator, presents a fun and interesting lecture on various topics, followed by an outdoor walking tour to discover the nature and wildlife of Fort Myers Beach. The program includes a delicious and healthy breakfast, with advance registration required at $15-per-person.

Dexter – personable, funny, intelligent, and affable as always – focused the initial “Breakfast On The Beach” on nesting sea turtles, as Fort Myers Beach is a haven for Loggerheads, and we are now firmly in turtle nesting season from April 15 to October 31. He points out that “I am not exactly a nesting sea turtle expert, but I also don’t make things up – if I can help it! Seriously, if I don’t know the answer, I will follow up with you.” His topic was timely, as Turtle Time, Inc., the all-volunteer non-profit organization that monitors Big Hickory Island as well as Bonita, Bunche, and Fort Myers Beaches, reported the first Fort Myers Beach nest the previous morning.

Seeing Stars & Animal Magnetism

While to date the only sea turtle species to nest on Fort Myers Beach is the Loggerhead, Dexter stated that he spotted a Green on his kayak tour the previous night, adding that Ridley’s and Leathernecks are possible as well in our area. “Nesting sea turtles really get around,” he explains, “easily traveling over 1,000 miles, yet they return to the beach of their birth to lay their nests, almost to the exact same spot, with magnetic precision.”

Sea turtles accomplish this through a combination of dead reckoning via landmarks, by the stars, and from natural magnetism. “Animals use landmarks, just like people,” Dexter offers. “But landmarks can change; a lake can dry up, but stars remain constant. Animals also use the magnetism produced by the Earth’s spinning hot molten metal core.”

To comprehend nesting sea turtles on Fort Myers Beach, reiterated Dexter, “you have to be familiar with the Loggerhead.” Their skin is yellow to brown, with a reddish-brown shell. They spend most of their life in saltwater and estuary habitats, with females briefly coming on-shore to lay eggs. Loggerheads are commonly called the bulldozers of the sea, because their feeding patterns of bottom-dwelling invertebrates leaves behind a pattern similar to a bulldozer digging in the land. They are endangered, with efforts to restore their numbers requiring international cooperation, as they roam vast areas of the ocean, with critical nesting areas across several continents.

Cool Dads, Hot Moms!

Loggerheads nest 3 to 7 times a season, roughly every 11 to 15 days, with the hatchlings having an incubation period of approximately 2 months. The babies are about 2 inches long, hatch at night and crawl to the light of the seaward horizon. Adults can be over 3 feet and weigh 300 pounds, and do not reach maturity until they are between 20 to 40 years old in an average lifespan of 50 to 70 years. They lay their nests mostly in the Summer, as warm weather helps to incubate the eggs. Each nest can have up to 100 or more eggs, with the sand temperature determining their sex, warmer producing females and cooler mostly males. “Just remember,” Dexter says, “Cool Dads, Hot Moms!”

The primary bane to nesting turtles and their hatchlings is artificial light from beachfront properties that can prevent females from coming ashore, or cause them to select an inferior location from which few hatchlings will survive. Lights disorient the hatchlings, causing them to move toward that and away from the water, resulting in death from dehydration, exhaustion or automobiles. Hatchlings move toward water based on natural seaward light from where the sky and water meet on the horizon, but if they see a brighter, usually artificial light, they move toward that and most likely die.

Beachfront properties can help to prevent this by only using Wildlife Friendly Fixtures with an Amber LED bulb. Never shine a flashlight or use flash photography on a sea turtle, nor approach them on the beach, and remove all furniture, boats, tents, toys or like items from the beach by 9 p.m. Fill in holes dug in the sand because they trap hatchlings and even adults. “Taking small steps has a profound impact on the survival odds of nesting sea turtles,” relates Dexter. “Sadly, 99% of them will not make it through their first year, mostly because other creatures consume them for nourishment – that’s nature; someone is always food for someone else at all times! Sea turtles looked terribly threatened for a while, but now their numbers are improving.”

Sea turtles do not adapt well to land, adds Dexter. “Females gasp and struggle on shore, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to crawl up, dig their nest and lay eggs, then make it back to their natural environment of sea water. That is just one of the reasons why we ask people to stay away from sea turtles during the nesting process – it is physically exhausting for the Mom. To tell you how much sea turtles depend on the water, male hatchlings once they make it there never set foot on land again for the remainder of their long lives.”

If you find a turtle hatchling in the daytime, place it in a dry container and call Turtle Time immediately; to report a nest or a disoriented, lost, injured or dead hatchling or turtle, contact Turtle Time Inc., at 239-481-5566 or at www.turtletime.org. The next “Breakfast On The Beach” is Friday, June 9, when Dexter will examine another beach-related topic at The Newton House, at $15-per-person with reservations required, at 8:30 a.m.

 

Gary Mooney