2017-08-31 / Top News

TURTLE POWER

Florida sea turtle hatchlings emerge, begin treacherous trip to the water
BY ROBBIE SPENCER

PERHAPS NO OTHER TYPE OF PROCREATION on Earth is more meticulously protected and cared for than that of the sea turtles that lumber ashore in Florida to lay their eggs. Nesting began in late April, and now through October is peak hatching season for all those clutches of eggs signified by patches cordoned off in the sand. From all reports, it should be a good season for sea turtle hatchlings. Thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers and numerous government and nonprofit organizations, turtle nesting numbers have been on a significant rise in the last decade, with 2017 being no exception.

“The cumulative effects of our conservation efforts — including lighting and development regulations and enforcement, regulations in commercial fishing such as the use of turtle excluder devices in the shrimping industry and circle hooks in longline fishing — have had a huge impact,” Maura Kraus, principal environmentalist for Collier County, said.

Looking back at the last three nesting seasons, there have been 1,687 hatched nests in Collier County, including through this past week. By comparison, from 2005 to 2007 in Collier there were 514, with 2005 being a particularly low point with just over 100 hatched nests.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation has counted 830 nests on the two islands alone this year, as opposed to 262 in 2009, according to SeaTurtle.org. Monitoring on the islands has been going on since the late 1950s, making it one of the longest-running monitoring programs in the country.

“We’re having another banner year for turtles on the islands,” said SCCF communications director Karen Nelson. Another long-running turtle monitoring program, Turtle Time, monitors the coastline from the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach to the Lee-Collier border of Bonita Beach, as well as the shores of Pine Island farther north. So far this year, Turtle Time volunteers have counted 325 nests, with 99 hatched nests. More than 200 of those nests have been laid on Bonita Beach, and almost 100 on Fort Myers Beach.


Sea turtle hatchlings heading for their first swim. 
COURTESY PHOTO Sea turtle hatchlings heading for their first swim. COURTESY PHOTO Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium tracks nests near the Sarasota region of beaches, including Siesta Key, Casey Key, Lido Beach and Venice. In the 2006 nesting season, they reported just over 900 nests. In 2016? Nearly 4,500. And according to tallies from the Coastal Wildlife Club, there have been 4,343 loggerhead nests counted in Charlotte and Sarasota counties this season.

But none of these numbers come even close to the nesting levels of the east coast of Florida, where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports more than 110,000 nests this season, including nearly 36,000 in the Palm Beach County area alone, compared to 18,704 for the entire west coast.


Hatchlings: Approximately 1.8 inches Hatchlings: Approximately 1.8 inches “Nesting has been higher than average this year for greens and loggerheads,” Kirt Rusenko, a marine conservationist at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, said about hatching season. Gumbo Limbo counts nests on a five-mile span of Boca Raton’s beaches.

Mr. Rusenko noted that leatherbacks are not having a banner year in Palm Beach County; however, green turtles are seeing a near-record number of nests. Their status as an endangered species was downlisted to threatened in 2016.

“We are in the middle of hatching season and have been dealing with more hatchlings than last year,” Mr. Rusenko said of Boca Raton’s beaches. He added that even though the hatch rates are significantly higher this year — up from 38 percent last year to 59 percent — that number should be closer to 85 percent. “The dry, hot weather of south Florida has literally been cooking some eggs at the top side of nests,” he said.


SOURCE: FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION SOURCE: FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION Mr. Rusenko added recent heavy rains will help cool the weather and likely aid the hatchlings.

“Our biggest problem is that dry weather. Rain wouldn’t do any harm unless we received Texas-level rains,” he said, referring to Hurricane Harvey deluges.

“We’ve had a bigger problem than usual with foxes and raccoons this year,” he said.

Sea turtles are among the world’s oldest living creatures, existing more than 110 million years ago during the era of the dinosaurs. Despite their remarkable stamina, their status on the planet has been threatened by illegal harvesting, habitat encroachment and pollution to the point that extreme measures have been taken by many organizations to safeguard their mating process.


SOURCES: CONSERVANCY OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA AND FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE CONSERVATION COMMISSION SOURCES: CONSERVANCY OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA AND FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE CONSERVATION COMMISSION The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s turtle monitoring program is in its 35th year this season. Since 1982, Conservancy researchers have documented more than 284,000 hatchlings, primarily loggerhead sea turtles. Staff and volunteers at the nonprofit work with Collier County environmentalists to help track and protect sea turtle nests across a stretch of beach more than 20 miles across.

Conservancy biologist Dave Addison has spearheaded the organization’s monitoring efforts for years. For him, spotting a new loggerhead nest is unlike anything he’s seen in nature.

“Those brief encounters become all the more fascinating when I stop to think that these moments when a marine turtle ascends a beach to nest represent only a tiny fraction of her 80- to 100-year lifespan.”

Their human-like lifespan makes for a unique case study.

“Because sea turtles live such a long time, studying them over many years is the only real way for us to learn what they have to tell and understand how to protect them for future generations. It takes time and persistence.”

While loggerhead sea turtles make up the bulk of nests in Southwest Florida, green turtles and leatherbacks also lay their eggs here. In the 2016 season, FWC documented more than 120,000 loggerhead nests, 5,000 green turtle nests and 1,000 leatherback nests across the state.

Loggerheads are a protected species and only nest in two areas of the world: off the coast of Oman in the Middle East and on the beaches of Florida.

Female loggerheads can deposit more than 100 eggs in a nest. After incubating for approximately two moths, the bleary-eyed babies set a course for the sea. Only one in 1,000 survives to adulthood.

“Sea turtle hatchlings are small and appear helpless, so people may make the mistake of thinking they need assistance getting to the water. But you can help hatchlings (get home to deep water) by leaving them alone,” said Robbin Trindell, who leads FWC’s sea turtle management program.

Some may take this as a call for the public to help the hatchlings make their way out to sea, as their success rate is so low. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Sea turtle hatchlings are biologically programmed to look for the brightest horizon and make their way toward the water. This means beachgoers approaching hatchlings with cell phone lights or flashlights, or beachfront residents leaving porch and condominium lights on, can disorient the babies and cause them to turn away and literally crawl straight to their death.

“Any interference or disturbance by people, such as getting too close or taking flash photos, increases the chances the hatchlings will get confused, go in the wrong direction and not reach the ocean quickly,” Ms. Trindell said. “That makes them vulnerable to dehydration, exhaustion and predators.”

The FWC actually requires that any volunteer or official have a special permit to interact with sea turtle hatchlings. So unless you have a permit, you’re breaking the law if you try to help a hatchling find its way.

For more on sea turtle nesting and hatchlings, go to www.MyFWC.com/Sea- Turtle.

Report any hatchlings that are stranded, wandering in a road or parking lot, heading away from the water or dead to FWC’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC or #FWC on a cell phone. ¦

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Facts

>> Scientific name: Caretta caretta

>> Adult length: 3 feet

>> Weight: 250-300 pounds

>> Lifespan: Greater than 50 years

>> Habitat: Widely distributed throughout temperate and tropical regions of the ocean. Here in Florida, sea turtles use our patch reef ecosystems, just like you can see in our 5,000 gallon Patch Reef Aquarium, as foraging grounds.

>> Diet: Primarily carnivorous- eating fish, crustaceans, jellyfish, and occasionally seagrass and algae.

>> Protection status: Threatened in Florida, Endangered in other parts of the world.

>> Threats: As hatchlings, sea turtles face several natural predators, but as adults their only predators are sharks and humans. Human threats include habitat loss, poaching, pollution, litter (such as plastic bags), commercial fishing and boat collisions.

>> Other cool facts: Loggerheads were named for their relatively large heads and powerful jaws. Females come onto our local beaches, where they lay 100-120 eggs, and can come back to lay clutches multiple times in a nesting season. Nesting season for this species typically runs from May–October.

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