‘We are astonished, ecstatic’ – Southwest Florida's best turtle nesting season on record

Andrea Stetson

This is the best turtle nesting season on record for Bonita Beach, Vanderbilt Beach, Naples, Marco and Keewaydin Islands.

“We are astonished, ecstatic,” exclaimed Eve Haverfield, president and founder of Turtle Time, a volunteer group that monitors sea turtles in South Lee County. “It is just incredible. We are just so, so thrilled.”

Bonita Beach shattered its record with 282 nests. The previous record was 238 in 2019. What makes this even better is the nests are successfully hatching, sending up to 150 hatchlings per nest scurrying to the Gulf.

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“Bonita Beach is like a forest of yellow stakes,” Haverfield said referring to the markers her volunteers use to mark each nest. “Bonita is setting an incredible record of nest numbers there.”

A record number of nests are happening all over Collier County too.

“Oh my gosh, it’s nuts,” said Maura Kraus, Principal Environmental Specialist for Collier County. “We’ve never seen numbers like this. And they are hatching really, really well. I had some underwater a long time and they still hatched.”

Collier County now has 1,945 nests, breaking the 2016 record of 1,927. Keewaydin Island had a whopping 609 nests. Marco Island broke its record with its 101 nests. Kraus thinks there might be even more on Marco that didn’t get recorded because this year Sand Dollar Island split, leaving one half hard to access.

“They could possibly have more on Sand Dollar Island,” Kraus explained. “They have access issues. They do the best they can, but they have to kayak over. But this is the best on Marco so far, ever.”

Marco Island also got its first green turtle nests ever. Jenna Flickinger, monitors sea turtles there.

“These were the first two green nests on Marco. It’s very exciting,” she said.

Green turtles also nested on Barefoot, Vanderbilt and Naples beaches. Most of the nests are from loggerhead turtles. The beach at Parkshore is also breaking records.

“The big news is Parkshore beach got a leatherback this year,” said Kraus who added that’s the first leatherback that has ever nested on mainland Collier County. In 2015, Keewaydin had one leatherback nest.

“Our continental shelf is so far out, they like the deep water and the colder water so to have them here is amazing,” Kraus said.

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The high numbers are exciting and reassuring for turtle experts. Back in the early 2000’s the numbers were so low that they were worried. In 2005 only 444 nests were laid in Collier County. That same year only 22 nests were found on Bonita Beach. That’s the lowest on record for those beaches.

“We were really worried,” Kraus said. “We started on the upward slope around 2016, and we have had good years ever since, and this year is breaking records.”

Katie Moses, park manager at Lovers Key State Park, says she has not seen a year with this many nests. There are 121 on the beach there.

“It is very busy,” Moses said. “I love it. It just makes my heart so happy.”

Haverfield, Kraus and Moses, attribute the success to better conservation.

“It takes loggerheads about 30 years to reach maturity and we are in that time frame that we should be seeing the results of those efforts,” Haverfield explained.  “They are of age and are coming back.”

Haverfield has been monitoring Bonita Beach since 1991 and thinks some of the hatchlings she helped back then are the mother turtles coming on shore this year.

In the 1980s Kraus did a Head Start turtle program in Collier County where she raised hatchlings until they were nine months old before releasing them to give them a better chance of survival. She said it’s also the efforts the county has made to keep lights off the beach during nesting season, covering the nests to keep predators away and educating people, that has led to this record year.

Not every beach is setting records. Fort Myers Beach has 107 nests. The record was 132 in 2020. Sanibel Island has 567 nests so far this year and Captiva has 207 nests. That’s good, but not as many as 2021 when 698 nests were laid on Sanibel and 233 on Captiva.

“We are having a pretty good year,” said Carley Nolan who monitors sea turtles for the Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation.  “Last year was a record year.  We probably won’t get there.”

Turtle nesting season runs from May 1 to October 31 and while the number of nests being laid is now slowing down, the number of nests hatching is starting to peak. Loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the nests about 60 days after the mother turtle lays the eggs.