Sunday, April 20, was the fourth anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Though the oil and secondary impacts to this environmental disaster never reached the shores of Marco Island, it affected the sea turtles and shorebird populations throughout the Gulf. That summer, there was record number of volunteers willing to step up and volunteer to help marine wildlife and protect our beaches. Those numbers have dwindled over the last few years as the memory and anxiety of oil on our beaches faded. Why does it take a disaster to remind us what is important to us? It’s our beach, our backyard; let’s all do our part to keep it healthy…every year!
Protected loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) will soon return to our beaches. Adult female sea turtles will begin nesting on our beaches between May and August. Sixty days after the nests are created, the hatchlings will emerge and begin the trek to the Gulf of Mexico, usually between July and October. The next six months — May through October – are a crucial time of year for your part in conservation of this important marine population on the Marco Island beaches. Let’s all do our part to make this a successful year for our sea turtles!
In the 2013 nesting season, there were 93 nests on Marco Island beaches with 72 of these hatching. Approximately 6,486 hatchlings from the Marco beaches successfully made it to the Gulf of Mexico. This was the most productive season in about a decade. Good news for the health of the Gulf, but with only one out of 1,000 hatchlings making it to maturity, every hatchling counts to sustain this species’ population.
The natural glow of the moon and stars in the night sky direct the sea turtles back to the Gulf of Mexico. Artificial lights, such as lights shining through windows facing the Gulf, balcony ceiling and wall lights, up-lighting on landscape, pole lights in pool and parking areas, flashlights, lanterns and flash photography or mobile phone illumination, confuse sea turtles and interfere with their natural instincts. Too often this results in discouraging the females from nesting. She emerges from the Gulf ready to lay her eggs, but is confused or disorientated by the artificial lights, which results in her crawling back to the Gulf without nesting or dropping her eggs as she leaves — a “false crawl.” Last season, our beach had approximately 166 “false crawls.” This is 166 times a female seaturtle crawled out of the Gulf, up on the Marco Island beach, but turned around, not laying her eggs due to lighting, trash, chairs or equipment left on the beach, noise or too many people on the beach. This is a number that could be lower!
Artificial lights also can cause the death of hatchlings due to disorientation. They will travel inland toward the brighter, artificial lights, using the energy they need to swim into the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of sea turtle hatchlings die each year in Florida due to artificial lights shining on the beach. Unfortunately, last season there were three disorientations — these to urban glow. Overall, lighting compliance was good last year on the Marco Island beaches, but we can all do better. Thank you beachfront properties and beachgoers alike for your cooperation, but all of us on this barrier island need to turn off all lights that are unnecessary. With your help and compliance, disorientations can be a “zero” occurrence on Marco Island.
Sea turtles and people can easily coexist if we all take action to preserve and share our common habitat — Marco Island’s beautiful beach! To ensure our beaches are dark, property managers, beach vendors, and/or residents are encouraged to please step out on the beach at 9 PM, view the building or vendor area to determine what lights need shading or turned off. If you can see the direct light or your shadow on the beach, the light is too bright. Below are easy steps to take for sea turtle nesting and hatching season protection and conservation:
• All lights visible to the beach after 9 PM should be turned off, shielded or otherwise modified, redirected or adjusted to shine away from the beach between the dates of May 1 and October 31.This includes windows, balcony walls and ceiling lights, landscape and parking area lights that are visible and are in the “line of sight” to the beach.
• Outside lights that cannot be turned off for safety reasons can be temporarily shielded with foil, hoods or painted with black heat resistant oven paint on the beach-facing side.
• Long Wavelength Amber LED (light-emitting diode) lights are less attractive to sea turtles and prevent disorientations. They are excellent replacements for yellow and white lights and highly recommended for all beachfront lighting that is necessary to leave on after 9 PM.
• Close blinds and curtains by 9 PM to shield bright interior lights that normally shine onto the beach.
• Outside wall and ceiling balconylights should be off by 9 PM.
• The sea turtles need a beach free of any barriers that would prevent nesting. Beach furniture, toys, tents, any other equipment and all garbage should be removed from the beach EVERY night. If you see trash, pick it up and remove it from the beach.
• Keep your distance. If you witness a turtle crawling out of the ocean or digging a nest, remain quiet and at a distance and never stop a turtle that is returning to the water. Movements and noises can easily frighten a female sea turtle and prevent nesting. Using flash photography or a mobile phone camera can scare the nesting turtle and prevent her from nesting. Keep 100 feet away and stay quiet. Just enjoy the moment.
• After 9 PM, it is unlawful to use flashlights, flash photography, lantern, cell phone illumination or other sources of light on the beach. Never point a light source at sea turtle or illuminate a sea turtle nest. No fires or torches on the beach.
• Holes or trenches dug on the beach by beach-goers need to be filled in at the end of each day or by 9 PM. Adult sea turtles can get caught or disorientate and hatchlings get trapped in the holes or trenches, never making it to the Gulf. The holes are also safety hazards for beach goers, sea turtle monitors and emergency response staff. Please fill in all holes when leaving the beach!
• Sea turtle nests are monitored and posted on the beach with stakes, flagging and signage. It is unlawful to enter the posted nest area or impact the posted nest area in any manner. A minimum of a 25-foot perimeter of no activity within should be given to the protected nest area.
• To report dead or injured sea turtles or disoriented hatchlings, please put these numbers in your phone contact list now and then you can immediately call: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or Marco Island Sea Turtle Monitor, Mary Nelson (our “Turtle Lady”) at 239-289-9736.
If you need additional information or have any questions and/or comments, please contact me at 239-389-5003 (office), 239-825-0579 (mobile) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you all in advance for your commitment and effort in making it possible for this dwindling, threatened species to coexist with us on our beautiful beach. Let’s all do our part, and keep the Marco Island beach dark!
For more beach and bird information, please contact Nancy Richie, City of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or email@example.com.