It’s six o’clock in the morning at Tigertail Beach on Marco and not a soul is stirring. No one, that is, except for Mary Nelson, Marco Island’s “Sea Turtle Lady.” Seven days a week, from May through October, Mary drives the beaches of Marco on her ATV, registering and marking endangered Loggerhead sea turtle movements and their nests.
Ask Mary why she does what she does and the answer is simple. “From the moment I saw a nest of baby sea turtles hatch, I fell in love.” Mary and her husband moved to Marco Island in 1991. That was the same year that she saw the nest of sea turtles hatch and was also the same year she began to volunteer during sea turtle season. After witnessing the sea turtle nest hatch outside of her beachfront condo she immediately wanted to do more to help these endangered creatures. Mary took it upon herself to contact Collier County to discuss volunteering. At that time, sea turtle nests in Collier County were monitored through volunteer work only. For four years, Mary spent her nights on the Marco beaches; marking new sea turtle nests and ensuring a safe transit for hatchlings into the ocean.
In 1995, Collier County realized the growing need to monitor sea turtle nests closer and asked Mary to become a permanent member of their sea turtle staff. She was provided with an ATV and her nightly excursions turned into morning ventures. Much more work also went in to tracking the nests and sea turtle habits.
Mary’s patrol begins at Tigertail Beach as she drives along the tide line looking for signs of turtle life.Her journey takes her all the way to South Beach and then back north all the way along Sand Dollar Beach. From here she treks to Hideaway Beach. This trip, about 9 miles, normally takes three hours, but on busy days it can be much longer. She is currently monitoring about 56 sea turtle nests throughout this area. The nesting phase is coming to an end and a number of nests are also very close to hatching. This means Mary can often have a very busy morning.
Her monitoring begins with marking new nests. By riding along the tide line Mary can easily pinpoint where a female sea turtle has crawled onto the beach. Their markings look like flat drag marks in the sand with v-shaped indents on either side. “Every female is different. Some will go to great lengths and won’t let anything stand in their way to nest. Others will encounter the tiniest bump in the sand and turn around and go right back to the water,” explains Mary. If a turtle does nest, it can be identified by a large mound in the sand near the turtle’s track marks. The area is roped off with caution tape and a yellow flyer is attached informing all who pass by. By tracking and sketching each sea turtle “crawl,” she can determine where a nest was laid or if the attempt was merely in vain. This is also known as a “false crawl.”
Female sea turtles only lay eggs every two to three years and always return to the same nesting area. This is also the only time they ever leave the ocean. As a resultof their limited time on land, many things can disturb them in their attempts to nest. Holes in the sand, beach debris and garbage and beach furniture can all cause a sea turtle to leave without nesting. As it is the sea turtle’s nature to return to the same nesting spot, they will also create a false crawl if they do not recognize the area. This can often happen due to beach refurbishment or artificial lighting.
Each crawl, successful or not, is monitored, marked and has its GPS location recorded. This information provides great insight as to the wheres, whens and whys of sea turtle behavior.
Another large part of Mary’s job is to know when sea turtle nests are close to hatching. It takes sixty days for the rubbery eggs to mature into baby sea turtles. Sex is determined based on egg position. Colder eggs become males and warmer eggs become females. When these boys and girls are close to hatching, Mary will often surround the back end and sides of the nest with black plastic to help the turtles head in the right direction. Artificial light from condos and hotels on the beach can cause the turtles to walk in the wrong direction as they are genetically inclined to head towards the moonlight. During sea turtle season, the condos and hotels comply with strict lighting rules in order to reduce the amount of turtles that crawl in the wrong direction. It is important to note here that if you ever do come across sea turtle hatchlings at night, do not take their picture. Newborns are very sensitive to light and can become disoriented oreven blinded by the flash.
After a successful hatch, Mary will count the number of eggs per nest as well as the number that hatched. All of this, again, goes into the careful county monitoring of these creatures.
It is estimated that only 1 out of 1,000 sea turtles actually makes it into adulthood. With an average of about 100 eggs per nest, this means that only one sea turtle out of ten nests will survive. This is why their preservation is so important. Marco Island locals are certainly aware of this fact. The “Sea Turtle Lady” has many allies on the beach who inform her of anything they see that day. Locals who walk the beach every morning eagerly provide her with information and visitors are always full of questions. “The best thing about answering these questions is the awareness that it brings to those who are on vacation,” adds Mary.
The most important thing to know, however, is if you see a hatchling or any sea turtle in need on Marco’s beaches, call Mary! She may be reached at all hours at 239-289-9736. Mary and her colleagues’ work is extremely important as the Loggerhead sea turtle population has been on a steady decline for many years now. Mary’s daily research is truly a testament to her love of sea turtles. In sweltering heat and amidst an army of no-see-ums and mosquitoes, she goes about her daily routine with a smile on her face. That genuine smile speaks of years of hard work and dedication to what is clearly her calling: assuring that Marco’s beaches will be a safe place for sea turtles to nest for many years to come.