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05/08/2014 at 3:33pm

Turtle SeasonMake Way for Sea Turtles

It’s sea turtle nesting season: May 1 – October 31

On the morning of May 3, 2014 – the third day of this year’s official sea turtle nesting season in southwest Florida – an excited voice greets this reporter on the phone. "Fort Myers Beach has its first turtle nest of the season!” exclaims Eve Haverfield, the sea turtles’ best friend and most ardent local champion. It’s an encouraging start to the season, which officially runs from May 1 through October 31.

As the founder of Turtle Time – a not-for-profit organization established in 1989, dedicated to the recovery and conservation of marine turtles – Eve leads a group of 100 volunteers. They walk, jog, or wheel along the Gulf of Mexico sands on Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach, Big Hickory Island, and Bunche Beach – just after daylight, every single day from late April to early November, keeping in touch by phone to report turtle activity and any disturbance thereof. (Sanibel has its own turtle monitors looking out for vulnerable nests.)

The day before our island’s first nest was found and marked, I had accompanied Eve on early-morning rounds in Turtle Time’s green buggy, from Lynn Hall Park (just north of the Fort Myers Beach public pier), south about 2 miles, and back to Bowditch Park at the island’s north tip. On patrols, Eve looks for signs of nocturnal turtle activity. She also keeps a sharp eye out for any objects or behaviors that might impede adult female turtles in their quest to nest, or later, the hatchlings’ emergence and sprint to the sea.

Turtle Time volunteers must patrol the beach each morning – leaving a small plastic flag or other sign of their presence – before local businesses are allowed to groom the sand or put out chairs, umbrellas, and booths. "We are permitted by the State of Florida to monitor sea turtle activity on these beaches during nesting season,” Eve notes. "We gather important scientific data about population estimates, distribution of nests, nesting patterns, and hatching success rates.”

Nests are measured, marked, and shielded with yellow tape on 3 sides, with an open end toward the Gulf to allow hatchlings to crawl to the water. Any sick or injured turtles are transported to special rehabilitation facilities, and deceased turtles are examined.

"I consider Fort Myers Beach a real success story,” says Eve. "Every little effort that people make to keep the beach turtle-friendly is heart-warming. We try to be positive messengers for turtles and encourage people to share the beach.” Business owners and workers during our morning patrol greeted Eve with a smile and evident goodwill. Gesturing at his building, one owner asked: "What do I need to change here?” That’s a proactive attitude that Turtle Time encourages all beach residents, businesses, and visitors to adopt.

The Sea Turtle’s Saga

For some 150 million years, these air-breathing reptiles have perpetuated their species in large part on Gulf of Mexico beaches. A mature female sea turtle, weighing 200 to 350 pounds, laboriously crawls ashore, fighting gravity to drag her body up above the high-tide line, scrape out a deep nest with her rear flippers (often at the foot of a sand dune), and deposit 100 to 120 eggs. She then covers the eggs over with just the right amount of sand to create a snug nest, before returning to her watery home. The nesting process can take 3 hours or more, and is exhausting for normally waterborne turtles.

Females return to nest where they hatched some 30 years before, swimming hundreds or even thousands of miles from their feeding grounds to their natal shore. Most will nest every second or third year, digging several nests at 11 to 15-day intervals in a summer.

Eggs hatch within 55 to 65 days. Sex of the hatchlings is dictated by temperatures within the nest. If it’s 84 degrees or below, males will predominate; above 86 degrees will yield mainly females.

This marvel of nature occurs year after year, despite continued pressure from human population growth, construction and increased activity along the shore, and pernicious debris such as plastic bags and monofilament fishing line fouling sand and water.

It’s an awe-inspiring testament to the endurance and determination of sea turtles. But why should humans care about the epic struggle of an ancient species?

"The health of our oceans depends on sea turtles,” Eve insists. "Five of the seven sea turtle species of the world are found in the Gulf of Mexico: Leatherback, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, Green, and Loggerhead. Each of those species has a specific function.

"For instance, the Green turtle is the farmer of the ocean. It grazes on turtle grasses, which keeps water flow and the area where fish lay their eggs healthy.” If turtle grasses aren’t harvested, they will overgrow like weeds. Then sludge, detritus from the plants, and algae clog the ecosystem.

"The Loggerhead is the bulldozer of the ocean floor,” Eve says. "It keeps the bottom loose with its massive head, as it digs around looking for food. Loggerheads have huge jaws. They eat conch, and when they break up the conch, some of the tissue feeds other sea animals.

"The Leatherback eats only jellyfish. And jellyfish eat fish eggs. In those areas that no longer have Leatherbacks – for instance, the Mediterranean – the fishing industry has collapsed, because jellyfish have eaten all the fish eggs.” And the Hawksbill? It keeps coral healthy by eating algae and sponges that grow on coral.

So sea turtles are like conservation rangers of the ocean. They protect our food supply, our recreational and commercial fishing industries, and perhaps unknown elements of the complicated marine ecosystem.

Of the five sea turtle species that grace our local shores, the Loggerhead is classified as Threatened while the other four are Endangered. "Over the years, sea turtles were taken for food, causing their numbers to decline drastically,” Eve says. "For many years, unfortunately, thousands of sea turtles got caught each year in shrimp trawls and drowned. That issue has been resolved in this country. Shrimpers now are required to have turtle-excluding devices on their nets. But in some countries, they’re not there yet. And sea turtles are migratory. We might save a turtle here, for it to get entangled in a net and drown in another country. Basically, people are the ones that have brought sea turtles to the brink of extinction.”

Only in recent years did humans understand that sea turtle hatchlings are drawn to the ocean by natural light. The introduction of artificial light has caused often-fatal confusion. Instead of making a beeline for the ocean, hatchlings head for brightly-lit roadways and houses, getting run over by cars or tangled in beach furniture. Millions of hatchlings were crushed on roadways of the east coast, such as Highway A1A. But now, east coast Florida roads use embedded LED lights, which are "safe for pedestrians, safe for vehicles, and turtle-safe,” Eve points out.

On Fort Myers Beach, "we’re getting there”. Amber or red LED lights (not white) are now required for outdoor use during the May through October turtle season. While costlier than standard bulbs, LED lights each provide 10,000 hours of illumination. Over time, they are far more economical, making amber LEDs a win-win for humans and sea turtles alike.

Turtle glass in beach-facing windows is required by the State of Florida for all new construction and renovations. It filters out a certain amount of light – about 55% – but a bright light near a beach-facing window made of turtle glass will still need to be shielded at night.

"We need to get all the electricians who work on this island to be cognizant of the rules and regulations,” says Eve. "They need to install, and encourage their clients to install, the proper lights.” When that doesn’t happen, the property gets cited and the correct lights must be installed.

"We really do have to share the beach,” Eve Haverfield concludes. "We ask those who use and enjoy these beaches to be on the lookout for turtles, trash, and treasures.”

Janet Sailian

Photos Janet Sailian