Coming out of their shell: Marco’s ‘Turtle Lady’ works to protect endangered loggerheads

Lance Shearer

The 2017 sea turtle nesting season is off to a “crawling” start.

That’s a good thing – after one “false crawl,” when a mother turtle came ashore on Monday evening but went back into the Gulf without laying her eggs, Marco Island got its first successful sea turtle nest, courtesy of a loggerhead mother, early on Wednesday morning.

Sea turtle nesting season officially began in Collier County on May 1, although one eager female jumped the gun and deposited her eggs on Keewaydin Island during April without checking to see if she was out of season.

Since sea turtles like the loggerhead, or caretta caretta, the species most commonly nesting locally, typically return to their “natal beach,” the same spot they were hatched, to lay their own eggs decades later, the turtle mothers swimming ashore to dig their nests and lay their eggs are likely return visitors to Marco Island. They have survived some daunting odds to get back here. 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.

These gentle giants – adults can weigh over 1,000 pounds – are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in this country, and listed as endangered in many countries around the world. While the loggerheads are the most frequent nesters here, green turtles, Kemps ridleys, and leatherhead sea turtles have also been known to use local beaches.

Mary Nelson could see her 2,000th turtle nest this season. For decades, Nelson has worked to improve the odds for turtle hatchlings on Marco, giving them the chance to at least start their ocean journey. The “turtle lady,” as she is widely known, started monitoring sea turtles on Marco in 1991 as a volunteer, before being hired by Collier County in 1995 to continue the program, and has been working for Collier County ever since.

The most nests she has seen in one season, she said, is 118, and the fewest 38, but “the average on Marco Island is 70 to 80.” So multiplying 75 nests times 25 years, Nelson has found something like 1,950 nests during her time monitoring. With an average clutch of 100 eggs per nest, that is something like 195,000 turtle eggs. It is a sobering realization that of all of those, fewer than 200 likely survived to become adult sea turtles.

Turtle monitor Mary Nelson, right, and assistant Yesi Olvera mark the egg site of a nesting turtle. Marco Island got its first turtle nest of the season early Wednesday morning, when a loggerhead mother laid a clutch of eggs north of Tigertail Beach.

She actually started her early morning monitoring on April 17, checking for “early birds.” Each morning, an hour before sunrise, she travels the entire length of Marco Island’s beach on an ATV, or all-terrain vehicle.

“I go south first, to get by the hotels before they are putting out beach gear.” Then she heads north to the wilder shore of Tigertail Beach and Sand Dollar Island. Up near the northern end of the island is where this year’s first nesting turtle placed her eggs.

“She really made a perfect nest,” said Nelson – away from the typical footpath, and high enough above the tide line to make flooding less likely. The turtle crawled up from the water and over the escarpment, low at that point on the beach, and started two “body pits” before settling on a spot for her nest.

Females have to lay their eggs, said Nelson, because there are more on the way behind those. They may nest two to three times during a season, approximately 14 days apart.

Approximately 60 days after the eggs are buried, they hatch out, and the babies begin their scramble for life. While adult females can lay several nests full of eggs during a summer, but do not nest every year, said Nelson.

Turtles have been doing better locally in recent years. Last year sea turtles in Collier and south Lee broke records, with 1,144 nests in Collier and 270 on Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach, Bunch Beach and Big Hickory Island.

That was more nests than had been laid in Collier since at least 2001; in south Lee, turtles had not laid that many nests since 2012, when they laid 203 nests, turtle monitors said. That translates to some 80,000 eggs and more than 50,000 hatchlings.

"It was incredible," said Maura Kraus, Collier's sea turtle program coordinator. "We're hoping that all of those years of sea turtle conservation are paying off."

One of the biggest threats to sea turtles is humans and their activity. To help them, beach lights must be shielded so as not to deter nesting or hatching turtles, and should be replaced with amber LEDs; commercial fishermen must use special hooks to avoid catching sea turtles; and shrimpers must use nets with devices to allow turtles to escape.

The most important things individuals can do to help the sea turtles is to leave them alone, said Kraus. “Don’t go looking for turtles. They need their space.” But on Marco Island, she added, turtles have a friend – Mary Nelson.

“Mary does an awesome job. She is the Turtle Lady – I don’t know what we’d do without her,” said Kraus.

Additional reporting by Eric Staats

Turtle tips

  • Turn off lights that shine on the beach, including cellphones.
  • Don’t approach a nesting sea turtle. That can cause her to abandon nesting.
  • Keep pets off the beach to avoid frightening nesting turtles or digging up nests.
  • Fill holes on the beach that can trap adult or hatching sea turtles.
  • Remove beach chairs that can impede sea turtles

Source: Collier County