By Natalie Strom
Marco Island’s sea turtles are in trouble. A recent nest count has revealed that Tropical Storm Debby washed away 14 sea turtle nests on Marco’s beaches. Prior to Debby, the total nest count on Marco Island’s beaches was at 37. Now there are only 23. This isn’t the only troubling news. Evidence of human tampering with nesting sea turtles and reports of people on the beach late at night searching for sea turtles are being blamed for the already unusually low nest count.
As Tropical Storm Debby pounded Collier County’s beaches for three days, the Collier County Sea Turtle Protection Department staff crossed their fingers, said prayers and waited in anticipation, willing the nests along their beaches to be kept safe. Unfortunately, strong winds caused a heavy tidal surge which washed away the majority of the nests within the county. Collier County nest totals pre-Debby were at 855. After Debby the nest count dropped to 181.
These losses are devastating for the species. Keewaydin Island, which hosted 200 nests before Debby, has only 25 that remain. Barefoot beach dropped from 101 to 50 while Vanderbilt beach lost 125 nests; only 22 are left. Naples beach dropped from 95 to 41 while Delnor Wiggins only has four nests of its original 33.
The counts are considered optimistic as many of the nests that remain may still have been compromised. Mary Nelson, Marco Island’s sea turtle monitor, believes that of the remaining 23 nests, only six were unscathed by the storm. “We still won’t know the extent of the damage until they hatch,” states Mary.
Her bigger concern, however, is that evidence of human tampering with sea turtles and their nests has been noted on Marco Island.
Every year, Mary traverses Marco’s beaches during nesting season protecting sea turtles and their nests. She counts both nests and false crawls. Female loggerheads will often crawl ashore, only to be distracted due to beach debris, human interference or bright lighting. Rather than nest, they return to the ocean, resulting in a false crawl.
On July 2, Mary marked a false crawl near the Hilton. The female had crawled all the way to the protected grass-filled dunes to nest but was deterred due to wave runners that end up forming a barrier between the sand and the vegetation – the Loggerhead’s preferred nesting locale. Wave runners, beach chairs, umbrellas, chickee huts and storage boxes that block areas of vegetation can easily cause these unfortunate events.
Beach goers are also reminded to remove any debris they bring to the beach such as chairs, fishing equipment, coolers, toys and so on. Any of these items left on the beach can result in a false crawl and possible injury to a sea turtle.
It is also important to fill any holes in the sand. “I have had one incident where a turtle was within a few feet of a hole and another where a turtle came within 15 to 25 feet of a very large hole,” adds Mary. As sea turtles can’t back up, Mary’s concern is that one may fall face first into a hole and will become injured or even die. These holes may also discourage sea turtles from nesting, causing more false crawls.
“Sea turtles need quiet, dark beaches to nest on,” explains Mary. While lighting ordinances are in place for condos and hotels along the beach, it is important that those out at night remember to keep a distance from any sea turtle they may see. Walking up to a turtle, attempting to help mark its nest and the use of flash photography and flashlights are all factors that will lead to a false crawl. Mary has heard first-hand stories of people perusing the beaches at night, seeking out sea turtles. She has also found footprints around false nests this year, signifying people have been in close proximity to a turtle as it attempts to lay its eggs.
Thankfully, nesting season is only half-way through. New nests are being secured daily on Collier’s beaches. With some luck and some well-behaved beach goers, hopes remain high that the sea turtles will make up for all the damage incurred by Debby as well as the under-informed.
To report a dead, injured or disoriented sea turtle on Marco, call (239) 289-9736 or (239) 252-2952.