Sea turtles are making their way to Marco Island. Between the months of May and October dozens of loggerhead sea turtles return to nest on our sandy shores. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve recently held a “Turtle Talk” presentation at the Marco Island Historical Museum to inform and prepare residents for the upcoming sea turtle season.
Sarah Norris, the environmental specialist for Rookery Bay, led the talk. Norris is responsible for managing the Cape Romano Complex sea turtle nesting program, which is located on a series of islands just south of Marco.
“Something not a lot of people realize is that Florida is one of the top two places in the entire world for loggerhead sea turtle nesting,” Norris said.
Loggerhead turtles can reach anywhere from 250 to 400 pounds. Norris called them the “gym rats” of the sea turtle because of their prominent jaws and strong builds.
“They’re really buff, they’re really strong and they have these incredible jaws that are used to feed on things like crabs, whelks, plants,” she said.
The loggerhead sea turtle is listed as a threatened species, which means they run the risk of endangerment. It’s estimated that only one in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to sexual maturity, about 25 to 35 years of age. Commercial fishing, plastic pollution, light pollution and obstacles on the beach that prevent them from getting to the ocean are amongst their biggest threats.
Norris and her team monitor the sea turtle nests they find within the Cape Romano Complex. The team, which is comprised of volunteers and interns, search for what they call a “sea turtle crawl,” or evidence that a sea turtle has crawled onto the sand and laid eggs. Once they have discovered a nest, they place a metal cage over it, effectively protecting the eggs from raccoons and other scavengers. Over the next 80 days, the nests are observed.
Once the hatchlings emerge, or after 80 days with no activity, Norris and her team dig up the nest and count the eggs. They document the number laid as well as the success of the hatchlings.
During the 2017 season, Rookery Bay recorded 135 nests with a total of 70 that had hatchlings emerge. They approximate that 4,355 sea turtles hatched. While this may seem like a high number, statistics prove that only a few will survive to reproduce.
“If we’re being extra positive and glass half full, we can say we made 4.3 adult turtles this season,” Norris said.
While sea turtles are facing big obstacles, there are simple things we can do to help. Norris suggested limiting your plastic use, filling in any holes you see on the beach, and bringing in beach furniture and other beach accessories. If you live on the beach, turn your lights off after dark or use red filtered light, as this does not disrupt sea turtle eyesight.
The Friends of Rookery Bay also offers an Adopt a Sea Turtle Nest program, which includes your name on the protective nest cage as well as information regarding the nest’s location, anticipated date of hatching, and a letter advising the hatching results.
“It’s an ongoing effort of the Friends of Rookery Bay as a way to fundraise to support the program and specifically the interns because they’re out there everyday,” Friends of Rookery Bay Executive Director Athan Barkoukis said.
For more information on the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve visit www.rookerybay.org.