Turtle nesting off to early start, good season expected in Collier, Lee

— Sea turtles have a head start on nesting season in Collier and Lee counties.

While sea turtle nesting season begins Tuesday, Bonita Beach already hosted the first early nest of the year. Then, two more nests were discovered, one in Naples and one in the Hideaway Beach area of Marco Island, about a week ahead of the May 1 season start, said Maura Kraus, Collier County's sea turtle program manager.

"We'd rather them come in early than late. The worst storms are usually toward the end of the season," she said of tropical storms and hurricanes that arrive before the Oct. 31 end of sea turtle nesting season.

The eggs take about 60 days to incubate and turtles may nest multiple times within the season. Weather, holes along the beach, construction projects and lights are among the factors that affect the sea turtles' nesting the most.

The sea turtles' early start this year is attributed to the warm winter, said Michael Kirby, the Bonita Springs environmental specialist.

Kirby and Kraus are predicting a good year for the turtles. The weather, along with very few planned projects along the beaches, should yield a good season for hatchlings, officials predict.

There are no beach renourishment projects this season planned in Collier County and only one small project in Lee County, Kirby said.

Lee County is adding sand to Big Hickory Island, but it's not in an area close to the sea oats, which is where turtles generally nest, he said.

Beach renourishment projects on Marco Island are likely to occur in November, after this season's end, and Collier County government's next planned project is toward the end of the 2013 nesting season, officials said.

Collier County's last beach renourishment project in 2011 delivered favorable conditions for sea turtles, Kraus said.

A different type of sand was used to renourish Vanderbilt Beach, Park Shore and city of Naples beaches last year.

"It was experimental and it performed wonderfully. The soft sands, with proper grain size, drain nicely to prevent the turtles from drowning," she said.

Coastal property owners seem to be doing their best to protect the turtles by shading lights or turning them off after 9 p.m., officials reported. Turtles are drawn to the moon's reflection off water, so inland lighting disorients them to crawl toward land.

Lee County is looking to balance turtle safety with human safety in a different way this year, Kirby said.

"Last year the emphasis was on turtle-compatible lighting. This year, the emphasis is a little more on public safety. If it's too dark in parking lots or on stairways, that's not people-compatible," Kirby said.

So, a certain type of lighting (Bollard) is being installed in some places and recommended for property owners to use for their safety because it's still dim enough to prevent disorientation among newly hatched turtles, he said.

Last year, six Marco Island sea turtles suffered from disorientation by lighting coming from north of the island, said Nancy Richie, Marco's environmental specialist.

"With the growth and development of Southwest Florida, the night skies are brighter, so it is not just beachfront properties that need to be aware of shading lights from the beach," Richie said.

What's best for the turtles could save people money, too, if they turn off lights when they're not needed, she said.

Also, beach-goers should cover any holes they dig in the sand because they become hazards to turtles, officials said.

"Large holes dug by beach-goers were an issue last season. Hatchlings were getting trapped and not making it to the Gulf (of Mexico)," Richie said.

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