Southwest Florida sea turtle nesting season off to crawling start

Tom Morrison stops during his daily run to talk with Maura Kraus about the progress of the sea turtles during their nesting season.  FILE PHOTO  Manuel Martinez/Staff

Photo by Manuel Martinez

Tom Morrison stops during his daily run to talk with Maura Kraus about the progress of the sea turtles during their nesting season. FILE PHOTO Manuel Martinez/Staff

— “Season” is just beginning for sea turtles.

Though nests sometimes are spotted in advance of the May 1 through Oct. 31 sea turtle nesting season in Florida, so far none of the threatened species’ nests have been reported in Lee and Collier counties.

“The water is still a little cool. They prefer the water to be about 81 degrees. It’s not quite there yet — maybe another week or two,” said Maura Kraus, Collier County sea turtle program manager.

However, the high number of female Loggerhead sea turtles already roaming the beach is encouraging for a second consecutive year of high nesting productivity, said Kraus and beach monitors from Turtle Time Inc., which monitors sea turtle nests and activity from Fort Myers Beach to the Lee-Collier County line.

Three nests were reported on the east coast nearly two weeks ahead of season, but none have been reported yet on Florida’s west coast, said Eve Haverfield of Turtle Time.

“Last year we had an incredible year even after we lost a lot of nests to two storms — Debby and Isaac. We had all our eggs in one basket when Debby hit,” Kraus said.

Tropical Storm Debby passed offshore of Collier and Lee in June; Isaac did so in August before becoming a hurricane. Last year, more than 800 nests were counted in Collier County and about 200 in south Lee.

The number of nests dropped, then went up again after Debby passed. The 2012 increase followed a decline in nesting among the threatened species for the past 10 years, Kraus said.

Since the same sea turtles won’t return for a couple of years, different turtles will be nesting this year. It’s too early to forecast how the season will unfold, officials said.

Sea turtles create nests through August and hatchlings emerge for their trek to the Gulf of Mexico 60 days after the nesting.

Lights from buildings, as well as from cameras and flashlights, may cause false crawls, which is when a female emerges from the Gulf and gets disoriented by these artificial lights and swims back into the Gulf instead of laying her eggs. The lights also can disorient the hatchlings to head inland rather than toward the moonlight reflection from the Gulf.

Officials suggest staying a safe distance from turtles if they’re spotted on the beach so as not to startle them and to remain 25 feet away from nests marked with posts and flags.

Among the greatest factors for the turtles’ nesting season success are weather and beachgoers keeping lights and obstructions, such as furniture, trash, toys sand castles and holes, off the beach.

Ordinances in Marco Island, Naples and unincorporated Collier County call for turning lights off near the beach by 9 p.m. and furniture off the beach by 9:30 p.m.

Residents with beachfront properties are encouraged to check their lights and consider purchasing amber LED lights, Haverfield said.

The 25-watt yellow bug lights no longer are available, and the amber LED lights aren’t yet available at chain stores, such as Home Depot and Lowes. MyFWC.com lists where to purchase turtle-friendly lights, she said.

“I have the glorious job of letting people know if their lights need to be off and remind them to pull down the shades. I start my nightly patrols May 2,” Bonita Springs Environmental Specialist Michael Kirby said.

Some beach renourishment projects are looking to help with nesting, while others could have a detrimental effect, officials said.

“Wiggins Pass dredging is moving along nicely and everything there will be done by the time the turtles get here,” Kraus said.

Little Hickory Island’s beach renourishment project might be better for the economy and people than turtles, Kirby said.

“As city environmental specialist, any shoreline hardening like that, especially on a barrier island, is not the best on the environment, including sea turtles,” he said.

It was important to keep the beach amenity for the local economy, Kirby said, so the best effort possible is being made to get the best sand grain size for turtles.

The beach is just north of Little Hickory Island and south of Lovers Key State Park.

A beach renourishment project was just completed on Marco Island at South Beach, and Hideaway Beach is undergoing renourishment at its north beach.

“Marco Island’s South Beach has just been refilled with 77,000 cubic yards of sand and the entire beach laser-graded, so we’re hoping this improves the beach for sea turtle habitat,” Marco Island Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie said. “Most of the low, standing-water areas were remedied with the grading.”

Effects of the rainy season and hurricane season may be harder to predict, but there is some optimism.

“We are hoping for a mild storm season, especially in the first few months, so nests that are created can survive successfully and hatch,” Richie said.

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