While many on Fort Myers Beach are struggling with frustrating road construction, water issues and Zika concerns, Eve Haverfield is enjoying a record-breaking year! Eve is the founder of Turtle Time, Inc., a non-profit established in 1989 for the benefit of marine turtles on Big Hickory Island, as well as Bonita, Bunche, and Fort Myers Beaches.
“The 2016 season to date is phenomenal,” she enthusiastically reports. “Fort Myers Beach has 93 turtle nests, easily surpassing last year’s record of 73. Bonita Beach smashed its previous mark with 160, well over last year’s 102 and shattering its 2012 high of 122. Bunche Beach has two, and Big Hickory Island an additional 16, making 2016 terrific in all our locales.”
Eve describes these figures as proof that long-term turtle conservation efforts begun in the 1970s are paying dividends. “It takes Loggerheads 30 years or more to mature to breeding age, and now is the time we should see positive signs of this program. We simply cannot attribute this dramatic increase to any other factor. Had we not noticed this increase around now, it would be a concern. These numbers are in direct contrast to the 2004 through 2011 seasons when we experienced a plunge in Loggerheads.”
Federal and State regulations protect nesting turtles, and local code enforcement ensures that everyone follows the rules. It is against the law to touch or disturb them, their hatchlings and nests. The primary bane to nesting turtles and hatchlings is artificial light from beachfront properties. Turtles for millennia had little trouble finding quiet dark beaches, but now compete with businesses and coastal residents. These developments can prevent females from coming ashore, or cause them to select an inferior location from which few hatchlings survive. Lights disorient the hatchlings, causing them to move toward that source and away from the Gulf, resulting in death from dehydration, exhaustion or automobiles.
Unlight the Night
Eve occasionally encounters those who feel Turtle Time places the welfare of animals over that of humans. “We happily concede the safety of turtles is not more important than the safety of people, but each is necessary to the long-term benefit of one-another because the survival of each is codependent upon one-another. No one expects humans to give up personal safety on behalf of turtles, but there are many ways to ensure that without sacrificing the turtles.”
For those with lighting, the simplest solution is to turn them off, but if residents feel that is not an option, then install proper shielding around them to illuminate buildings without shining any out light on the beach. “Better yet,” says Eve, “use Amber LED lights that protect your property but does not distract turtles. Amber has a different wavelength, provides plenty of light, is actually quite pretty and the price falls every year. The ultimate goal is to have everyone utilize Amber LED lights.” Eve stresses that not all of these are turtle-friendly: “Avoid White LED lights because these still disorient the nests.”
Southwest Florida is home to several species, though Fort Myers Beach remains the exclusive domain of Loggerheads. Eve calls them “the bulldozers! Kemp’s ridley is the smallest and most endangered, Leatherbacks eat 400 to 500 pounds of jellyfish a day, while Greens are vegetarians who keep sea grass groomed in a meadow condition conducive for other life. Hawksbills dine on sponges to keep coral clean and healthy. Each plays its own unique role in preserving the ocean for our benefit. That is why what is good for sea turtles is good for people; we cannot survive without one another.” In addition to Loggerheads, Sanibel Island this year reports nests for Leatherbacks, Ridleys and Greens.
Nesting season runs from May 1 through October 31, though Eve comments “we found our first nest this season on Fort Myers Beach on April 25. We actually began monitoring the beaches on April 15, and nesting can continue into early November. We discovered a new nest on Bonita Beach last week, and found several in other seasons as late as September 3, with hatchings in early November. Mother Nature sets her own parameters!”
Nesting turtles travel thousands of miles, from their feeding grounds back to the beach of their birth. Loggerheads nest 3 to 7 times a season, roughly every 11 to 15 days, with hatchlings having an incubation period of roughly 2 months. Each can have up to 100 or more eggs, and the nest temperature determines their gender: cooler sand results in mostly males, while warmer produces females. Out of every 1,000, perhaps one 1 in 4 will survive to adulthood, though it is common for nests to have a 100% survival rate. Babies are about 2 inches long, hatch at night, and crawl to the seaward horizon. Adults can be over 3 feet and weigh 300 pounds, and do not reach maturity until they are between 20 to 50 years old in an average lifespan of 70 to 90 years.
Eve explains that 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 instead, basically sealing their doom.” 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 Turtle Time’s most crucial missions is to establish an environment where people share the beach with turtles. We have an old saying: ‘What is good for turtles is good for people.’ We specialize in human attitudinal adjustments so people live in partnership with turtles.”
If you come across a hatchling marching towards water, Eve stresses to “leave it alone! Get out of its way and do not disorient it by taking flash photographs at night. The best policy is ‘Hands Off!’ If you encounter one during the day, place it in a dry container, do not add any water, and immediately contact Turtle Time.”
This upcoming week will be stressful for turtles, with Tropical Depression 9 forecast to make landfall somewhere on Florida’s west coast. “It does not have to be a devastating hurricane to destroy turtle nests, as storm surge can occur hundreds of miles from the actual center. An excellent example occurred this summer with Tropical Storm Colin in early June, with its surge wiping out several early season nests. Of the 93 on Fort Myers Beach, we still have 28 left, so it is a significant concern and one we will closely monitor. We cross our fingers they will all survive.”
She points out that most citizens and tourists are “extremely cooperative, and willing participants on behalf of the animals.” Turtle Time could not accomplish its mission without its approximately 110 volunteers. “They are incredible,” Eve says enthusiastically. “They are excellent examples of the outstanding community support we receive, because so many Southwest Floridians are proud to have sea turtles in our area. We always welcome more people, and will host a training class in April 2017 for next season.”
Sad & Glad
In the midst of all these positives is sad news, however. “Only 1 in 4 hatchlings survive to adulthood,” Eve relates. “Despite the record numbers on Fort Myers Beach, we lost 9 nests to disorientation, as well as finding 2 confused adults, and that almost never occurs. These were direct results from light incursions that the Town of Fort Myers Beach is addressing through code regulations. Turtle Time is all about education but does not have any enforcement authority; that must come from our local governments.”
Hundreds of hatchlings already crawled to their deaths this year because of noncompliance, Eve says. “There are few things in life more depressing to me than when I scrap dead hatchlings off roadways because a property owner did not comply with restrictions or install Amber LED lights. You have to be emotionally strong to deal with these instances, because it take so little effort by humans to protect turtles.”
Despite these moments, Eve finds her work to be one of the greatest accomplishments of her life. “It is wonderful being part of the solution and not the problem. I love to work with animals and people, to help change their mindsets about the environment in general and turtles in particular. When humans share the beach in peace with sea turtles, everything we endure is worth it!”
To volunteer, obtain sea turtle 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 information call the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202, extension 1702, and for Wildlife Friendly Fixtures see bit.ly/FWCturtlelites.
Join the movement to protect our nesting sea turtles today!