Gentle giants coming soon: Loggerheads, other turtles start nesting on area beaches soon
If you see what looks like a giant log or an old floating picnic table out in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, don't be surprised if it slowly swims away.
Sea turtle nesting season starts soon, and that means adults ranging in size from a full-size beanbag to a small car will be plying local waters.
Females will lay several nests this summer on local beaches, the very same places they themselves were born decades ago.
"It is as if they have an internal GPS," said Luciano Soares, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "Each female will lay around five clutches during the nesting season, each containing approximately 110 eggs. Once the nesting season is over, females return to their foraging areas, where they will stay for two to three years, accumulating enough energy to return and start the nesting cycle all over again."
Soares is part of a network of scientists and citizen support groups that monitor sea turtle nesting each year.
Many of the groups are hoping for a high number of nests this year based on a fruitful 2019 summer.
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"In 2019, it was a wonderful year," said Eve Haverfield, director of Turtle Time Inc. "We had a total of 367 nests. That's our highest ever. The closest we came to that was in 2017, when we had 327 nests. Those are the only two years we've had more than 300, and we know that loggerheads typically nest every other year. So we're hoping for a great year this year."
After nesting, loggerheads return to their foraging areas and linger in the warm waters along the coast, often breeding with a variety of males.
Loggerheads are the primary nesting species in Southwest Florida, although we do get a few green sea turtle nests and the rare leatherback.
Females lay four to seven nests at 11- to 15-day intervals.
They usually nest at night, slowly emerging from the Gulf of Mexico, digging a massive hole, laying dozens of eggs, covering them and then crawling back to the ocean.
The turtles are especially vulnerable at this point, Soares said.
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"Females emerge from the water and can easily be spooked back to the water, so you should never approach a sea turtle on the nesting beach," Soares said. "They will crawl their way up the beach to a place they find appropriate to construct a body pit."
The females slowly produce dozens of eggs and pat down the sand.
"The females will apply a gentle pressure over the sand to seal the egg chamber, creating the ideal nest environment for the eggs to develop," Soares said. "After an average of 50 days, hatchlings will emerge from the nest and find their away to the water."
The males continue to feed and swim in the area, and they will mate throughout the summer.
Nesting season here runs from May 1 through October.
The first nest on the Southwest coast was reported Wednesday at Manasota Key.
"We're next," Haverfield said. "In 2019, we had a green (turtle) nest on Fort Myers Beach and I've never seen that in 31 years of monitoring. That was the first one on Fort Myers and we had 10 on Bonita Beach."
Haverfield said she hopes this summer will bring similar numbers.
Overall sea turtle numbers have gone up in recent years, but that was after decades of declines.
"Twenty or thirty years ago, the greens were highly endangered," Haverfield said. "That species has been saved from the brink of extinction."
She credits conservation laws and public awareness as reasons numbers are rebounding.
Haverfield called the green sea turtle the "farmers of the sea" as they are the only sea turtle that is vegetarian.
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"They're so exciting to see on land, and their nests are humongous," she said. "It can be the size of a room."
Although season doesn't start until May 1, Haverfield and her group start monitoring beaches in April.
So do biologists and nature specialists working for Collier County.
"We started on April 15, and so far there are no nests in Collier County," said Maura Kraus, with the county's natural resources department. "We’re keeping an eye on it every day and the only thing we’ve recovered so far is dead turtles."
Haverfield and others are optimistic that sea turtles — which suffered hundreds of deaths from red tide in the summer of 2018 — will have a strong summer.
"We are in a good cycle right now and people think we're out of the woods with sea turtles (but) you can't judge them one year to the next," Haverfield said. "You have to go through a significant amount of time, and I think right now the trend is OK."
Haverfield said boaters can help protect sea turtles by keeping an eye out when they're behind the wheel, and beach-front residents should remove all furniture and fill in any holes that were dug.
"We want boaters to be vigilant and I know a lot of boaters slow down when they see them, and they honor what the turtles are doing, out there living and mating," Haverfield said. "People along the beaches need to remove their beach furniture. It needs to go behind the dunes and lights need to be replaced with amber LED lights. Window curtains should be closed."
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.