As everyone gets ready for a busy holiday weekend, we wanted to remind our readers to look out for those visitors who would definitely not benefit from excessive partying on the beach – the sea turtles who come to our emerald shores each summer to lay their nests. With the first hatchlings expected to emerge from their sandy nests any day now, Turtle Time’s Eve Haverfield is begging residents and visitors to be ever diligent and not shine lights on the beach that may disorient them and cause them to perish because they cannot find their way into the Gulf.
“Please, everyone – don’t walk the beach with flashlights, iPhone lights, any kind of lights,” Eve told us on Monday. “There are nests all up and down the island, and we do expect some of them to hatch this weekend. If you’re staying in a beachfront home, close your drapes, turn off any light that shines on the beach and be extra, extra careful. Or replace all the bulbs with turtle-friendly LED lights.”
Eve founded Turtle Time, Inc., a non-profit in 1989, for marine turtles on Big Hickory Island, and Bonita, Bunche, and Fort Myers Beach. “When I began I was an army of one with 5 nests,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Today we have over 100 volunteers and had 73 nests in 2015. We take care of their habitat in exchange for everything they do for us; it is a No Deposit, No Return philosophy.”
Eve is especially worried because this year is on its way to being a record-setter, with 61 nests already accounted for. Last year’s 73 nests also set a record, though out of 7,000 eggs, only 2,845 baby turtles made it to the water. Haverfield is asking that people be extra diligent to give this year’s crop of hatchlings better odds.
“Since the incubation period is approximately 2 months, some of those would have hatched by now, but we had quite a bit of wash-over from Tropical Storm Colin,” she said. “Extra moisture means an extra long gestation period, and we want every one of those hatchlings to make it to the Gulf.”
Nesting turtles travel thousands of miles, from their feeding grounds back to the beaches of their birth. Loggerheads nest 3 to 7 times a season, every 11 to 15 days. Each nest can have 100 or more eggs, and its temperature determines gender: cooler sand results in mostly males, warmer females. Out of every 1,000 born, between 1 and 4 make it, though 100% nest survival rates do occur. Babies are about 2 inches long, hatch at night, and crawl to the seaward horizon where the sky meets the water. They are guided by moonlight or starlight reflected on the water. Adults grow to over 3 feet and 300 pounds, and do not mature until they are from 20 to 50 years old in a lifespan of 70 to 90 years.
The primary bane to nesting turtles and their hatchlings is artificial light from beach properties. Turtles for millennia had quiet dark beaches to themselves but now compete with businesses and coastal residents. Lights from these developments can prevent females from coming ashore, or choosing an inferior location from which few hatchlings will survive. These same lights disorient hatchlings, causing them to move toward that light instead of the Gulf, resulting in death from dehydration, exhaustion or automobiles. Equally important is to remove all beach furniture, boats, tents, toys, or like items by 9 p.m. Fill in holes dug in the sand because they can trap hatchlings and even adults.
“One of our most crucial missions is Human Attitudinal Adjustments so humans and turtles share the beach in partnership,” Eve told us. “Tourists love our educational signs because they learn something cool while on vacation. We enjoy educating the public and most help willingly. Federal and State law protects the turtles, and this year in particular, code enforcement will ensure everyone follows the rules.”
If you find a hatchling in the daytime, put it in a dry container and call Turtle Time immediately.
“Sea turtles are the caretakers of healthy oceans,” Eve told us. “They play a crucial role. Loggerhead turtles bulldoze the sand at the bottom of the ocean, loosening it up so fish can lay their eggs there and hide. Green turtles are the ‘farmer’ turtles – they keep the turtle grass healthy, which serves as a nursery to baby fish. Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish, which eat fish eggs. There is actually an area in the Mediterranean where there are no leatherbacks, and fish populations there have collapsed because all the fishermen catch are jellyfish. See the pattern? If you want fish, you need turtles.”
Haverfield told us that amber LED’s also save money on power bills, are more aesthetically pleasing, attract fewer bugs than traditional fluorescent bulbs and are actually safer. “With fluorescent lights, the only thing that is illuminated is you and all your stuff,” Eve said. “Someone could be prowling around outside and you’d never see them. “We keep trying to get folks to use Amber LED lights instead because the turtles can’t see them, plus they last forever and don’t cause night blindness in people.”
Here on Fort Myers Beach, it is against the law to have outside lights on the beach at night during turtle season because artificial lights will confuse hatchlings and cause them to wander inland, where they become lost and disoriented and quickly die from dehydration, heat exhaustion or by being crushed by cars.
“There is no way to describe the feeling of scraping dead hatchlings off the roadway because someone left on a light,” Eve reflects somberly. “There are a lot of properties on the beach that are still not in compliance, so I really hope the Town steps up and makes sure everyone is complying with the law – this is critical when nests are about to hatch.”
To volunteer, obtain information or report a disoriented, lost, injured or dead hatchling or turtle contact Turtle Time Inc., at 239-481-5566 or www.turtletime.org. For lighting details contact the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202, extension 1702, and for Wildlife Friendly Fixtures see bit.ly/FWClights.
Keeping sea turtles safe is not hard; it just takes a little bit of effort. Turn off any lights that shine on the beach. Fill in holes and remove furniture from the beach. Give the hatchlings a chance! Do your part in the nesting sea turtle protection effort!
Keri Hendry Weeg
Gary Mooney contributed to this article
To see a video of a turtle nesting on Fort Myers Beach, visit bit.ly/turtlenesting and scroll to May 25th.