MARCO ISLAND — After a summer of struggle in the northern Gulf, endangered sea turtles caught a break on Marco shores. Despite three disorientations, turtles and their nests are holding their own with the cooperation of hotels and condos on the beach.
Sea turtle nesting season began May 1 and continues through Oct. 31. This year, female sea turtles laid eggs in 46 nests on Marco beaches and 24 have successfully hatched so far. Although this number is down from 57 nests last year, city Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie is enthusiastic about the species’ progress here this year and the local cooperation that’s making it possible. “We’ve had very large nests this year, with lots of eggs.”
In 2009 Richie issued 116 violations for lighting and one code enforcement action related to the disorientation and death of sea turtle hatchlings. This year she has seen a rise in compliance, and sympathy.
“I think people have an extra appreciation for our animals and the environment we have here after seeing so much destruction related to the oil spill,” said Richie.
“The managers at the condos and the hotels have really tried hard. Really, the issues we have had are with nightly or weekly renters forgetting a light or leaving a curtain open.” In a recent night time check of the beach, Richie found nine such violations, and will call each building to get a reminder back to the unit responsible.
The debilitating effect artificial lighting creates for sea turtles is two fold. It is frightening for the mother turtle climbing onto the beach in search of a nesting spot, says Richie. Once baby sea turtles hatch, they rely on the natural light of stars and moon shining on the water to guide them into the sea. Any bright light they see will turn them in the wrong direction. “Florida has 30 years of research monitoring sea turtles, and the research proves that it is light that creates a problem.”
As a result, Richie campaigns hard every season to encourage beachfront hotels and condos to keep lights low after 9 p.m.
Marco Island’s three disorientations are the most for the county, with the only other occurrence so far on Vanderbilt beach in Naples. What makes it good news for Richie is the fact that none of them were the result of wrongdoing committed by Islanders.
General ’urban glow’ from Naples was responsible for the disappearance of 111 baby loggerhead turtles, according to a report by Mary Nelson, a sea turtle monitor for Collier County. The babies hatched in between Sand Dollar island and Tigertail Beach and went towards the lagoon instead of the Gulf. “If it’s cloudy then they see the glow from Naples and head north instead,” says Richie.
One baby loggerhead emerged a day late in another disorientation and did not survive. “He missed the bus and got confused.” Richie added that the entire nest of baby turtles work together to break out and find their way to the Gulf, so a latecomer would not be able to make it alone.
The final disorientation happened to an inexperienced loggerhead mother. Nelson found her around daybreak. The mother had wandered a zigzagging path before heading back to the water. “She came out much later than usual and the sky was already light,” says Richie. “She was full of eggs. Hopefully she’ll come back again.”
Female turtles come ashore to nest only once every three years, starting at their maturity, around 16 years old. “What makes a hatch successful is when all the babies get to the Gulf as naturally as possible so they imprint the spot as their natal beach.”
Where the thousands of babies hatched from eggs relocated from the northern Gulf will imprint is a question mark, observes Richie. “You have all these re-released turtles and eggs relocated to the east coast of Florida. It will be interesting to see where they decide to return.”
Richie and Nelson will be watching closely to make sure a natural hatch happens for as many turtles as possible. Right now, they want Islanders to know that the south area of the beach has nests close to hatching and hope that the humans will help maintain a good environment for the turtles.
Night time beach walkers need not be surprised to see the women armed with stethoscopes, listening to the sand. Richie says the two are keeping close watch on nests in the homestretch.
“It takes about 72 hours for all the eggs to hatch and we listen to hear how they are doing.”