MARCO ISLAND — It’s not easy being a sea turtle. It’s estimated that only one in a thousand sea turtles, the ones that do successfully hatch, survive to maturity. They fall prey to a host of predators, including raccoons, crabs, fish, and seabirds.
Marco Island is prime nesting habitat for sea turtles, including the loggerhead sea turtle caretta caretta, so big they had to name it twice. These gentle giants are protected under the Endangered Species Act. For decades, Mary Nelson has worked to improve the odds for turtle hatchlings on Marco, giving them the chance to at least start their ocean journey.
On a warm Friday evening, with rain clouds threatening to dump more moisture down to join that already fallen, Nelson, her assistant and a volunteer rendezvous at Tigertail Beach as darkness gathers just after sunset. Nelson is affectionately known on Marco as the “Turtle Lady,” as even the license plate on her T-Bird proclaims.
Ed Tucker, who works with Nelson in Collier County’s Sea Turtle Protection Program, carries a five-gallon bucket toward the water’s edge. Inside are 24 baby sea turtles, the only ones of 100 or so original inhabitants to survive the invasion of their nest by yet another predator, invasive fire ants. Asked whether she is upsetting the balance of nature by interfering to give the hatchlings a chance, Nelson is unrepentant.
“We hold them back enough,” she says, mentioning the loss of habitat and proliferation of beachfront lighting that has complicated the nesting process for the turtles. The hatchlings generally wait within the nest after pecking their way out of their eggs and then exit en masse under cover of darkness, giving them the best chance of reaching the partial shelter of open water, says Nelson. And no, they don’t always hatch under the full moon, guiding them into the Gulf as it sets.
“The full moon does help, reflecting on the water,” but they can show up any night, and the staff and volunteers patrol the beach every night during the hatching season that runs from June through October, after female turtles begin laying eggs on area beaches in May. Approximately 60 days after the eggs are buried, they hatch out, and the babies begin their scramble for life. Adult females can lay several nests full of eggs during a summer, but only nest every three years, said Nelson.
This has been a banner year for sea turtles on Marco Island. Through August, 93 nests were established, versus 52 last year, and 49 had hatched out, versus 37 in 2012. “False crawls,” where the mother turtle comes onto the beach but leaves without laying a clutch of eggs, were also up, from 75 last year to 166 this year.
Total sea turtle nests for Collier County beaches, including Marco, were up from 1,072 to 1,259, so Marco Island’s increase was well above the county average. Marco also led in another category, unfortunately, tying the City of Naples for the number of nests where the hatchlings were disoriented and headed off in the wrong direction after crawling to the surface, with three each.
Even the two dozen turtles at sunset on Tigertail, despite being pointed in the right direction and starting just five to ten yards from the tideline, giving them a much shorter than average crawl, had trouble figuring it out, with one hatchling determined to go live the sweet life in a beachside condominium.
Like humans, the turtles take 15 to 20 years to reach reproductive age, and typically return to their “natal beach,” where they themselves hatched out, to lay their clutches of eggs. Nelson started monitoring sea turtles on Marco in 1991 as a volunteer, before being hired by the county in 1995 to continue the program, so she has almost certainly had turtles whom she shepherded out to sea as hatchlings return as expectant mothers to continue the circle of life.
Eventually, as the sky blackens, all the babies reach the Gulf and head out.
“We don’t watch them out too far,” said Nelson. “We don’t want to see them disappear,” snagged by a predator.
“She really puts her heart into it,” said volunteer Beverly Ann Shipe, walking back from the turtle release.
“Mary works really hard, late at night and early in the morning,” said City of Marco Island Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie, who said her own nickname for Nelson is “Mama Turtle.” Nelson seems to agree with that assessment. Asked if she has any children, she replied “about three to four thousand,” all turtles.
So do your best to help out “Mary’s kids.” Leave nests alone, don’t shine lights out onto the beach that can be seen from a turtle’s eye view (down at sand level,) don’t leave litter including balloons, which could be mistaken for food and ingested, and if you encounter a dead or injured sea turtle, contact Collier County Environmental Services at (239) 732-2505.