Loggerhead sea turtles posted a banner nesting season this year on Collier County’s beaches, eclipsing all numbers seen in recent years. As the hatching season comes to an end, we can still expect to see loggerhead and green sea turtles in our waters. Even the giant leatherback nested on a county beach back in 2015, a most rare occasion. In addition, the most endangered of all of these turtle species can be found here as well.
The Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) utilizes our pristine estuarine settings as a place to feed, develop and grow to adulthood. An estuary is a place of change where inland freshwater tributaries meet the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico, in our area, and these waters are teeming with food sources that complement the Kemp’s Ridley’s diet. At this time they are the most common of turtles gracing our coastal and back bay waters.
Very locally, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been working with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to study the abundance, feeding habits and movement of these fascinating creatures. Some are actually captured to determine their sex and to obtain blood samples which will provide the chemical composition of the Ridley’s diet. The adage “you are what you eat” helps scientists determine the turtles’ food intake.
The Kemp’s Ridley species found in our waters are mostly “immature” or youngsters using our area resources to feed and grow before continuing their journey to the primary nesting grounds in Mexico.
While here at this time of their lives, some dangers do pose threats to their existence. Gastro-intestinal complications and red tide can have a severe and adverse effect on life. In the past few weeks several Kemp’s Ridley have been captured for study and/or rescued, some by eco-tour operators. Others have been found on area beaches, no longer alive.
Scientists at the Conservancy do assign names to the turtles and, during the month of October, Hudson, Pax and Queenie have been released back into the wild. Any illness treatment, again, seems to be related to gastro-intestinal issues or the effects of red tide. Our region provides a developmental habitat for the immature turtles and it is essential in providing information regarding foraging areas and migration paths. The rescue of these turtles by eco-tour operators contributes strongly to the study and understanding of what can go wrong with these creatures and how it can be properly studied and documented. Understanding how turtles survive in estuaries like the 10,000 Islands and then protecting these feeding areas will ensure that the preservation of this endangered species will continue.
Although a very rare nest may be found along a Florida beach, the primary nesting area for the Kemp’s Ridley is across the Gulf of Mexico, utilizing three main beaches in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, just south of the U.S. border of Texas. Loggerhead and green sea turtles in our area come ashore at night to nest, but the Ridley turtle is the only species that nests during the day.
Large groups of females will gather just offshore and come onto the beach to nest all at once. This is called an “arribada,” Spanish for “arrival,” and the Kemp’s Ridley is only one of two species of sea turtles that nest in this manner.
In 2017, twenty-five thousand nests were documented in one of the mass events.
Hatchlings will emerge from the nest in great numbers, swimming offshore. Many will cling to floating algae called sargassum, which they use to rest, hide and feed. Hypothetically this drifting period lasts one to two years when the turtle reaches a length of eight inches, at which time it migrates to nearshore estuaries to feed and mature. Some of those areas would be the waters of the 10,000 Islands and Rookery Bay.
The females that take advantage of our estuaries and grow to adulthood will mature at about thirteen years old. They lay an average of two to three clutches of eggs per season, with each nest containing about one hundred eggs that incubate in the sand for fifty to sixty days. They return to produce more eggs every one-to-three years.
The work being done by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Rookery Bay is very important to the health of the Kemp’s Ridley population and future recovery. The acts of eco-tour companies, and the general public, to rescue and alert rescue teams of distressed turtles is a huge part of this preservation. Many thanks to all who show concern for the well-being of this endangered species.
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel, Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books available locally and an award-winning columnist for this newspaper. He is a popular speaker at South Florida venues and… Bob loves his wife very much!