Changes in latitude, changes in attitude:
May is typically a month of changes on our Island – reduction in traffic congestion, weather is variable, and many of our busy schedules just slow down. It is also the month the protected Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) will soon begin to return to our beach. Adult female sea turtles will begin nesting on our beaches between May and August with hatching of nests lasting through October. This brings another change: Mary Nelson, the sea turtle monitor for the Marco Island beach, starts patrolling for nests. This is the twentieth season Mary has monitored the Marco Island sea turtle population. She began as a volunteer and four years later, due to her dedication, expertise and genuine love of the sea turtles, Collier County employed her for the seasonal monitoring. This is very fortunate for Marco Island.
Waking at the crack of dawn to patrol the beaches, Mary jumps on her “all terrain vehicle” and rides from Hideaway to Sand Dollar to Cape Marco, looking for tracks of the nesting sea turtles. During the six months of the nesting and hatching season, she spends a minimum of four hours each morning on the beach, seven days a week. She also performs lighting compliance surveys periodically with City staff and when hatching begins, generally in early to mid-July, she can be on the beach past midnight to monitor and guide the hatchlings to the Gulf. This dedication adds up to forty hours a week on the beach for six months.
With long hours, one wonders if she is looking forward to her twentieth season. She states, “I am! A lot of changes, though, this year with the beach.” What keeps her interest and motivates each season are these changes and new challenges during the season. Well, her workplace is our beach! Really, there are four diverse areas to the Marco Island beach in regards to sea turtle habitat. Hideaway Beach typically supports up to a quarter of the nest sites per season. This season, a nourishment project is to begin and combined with the sand “tail” end of the Sand Dollar Island creating a barrier to the Gulf of Mexico, nesting is expecting to be low. If nests are found within the nourishment project area, she will have to risk moving the eggs to a suitable location for hatching. Sand Dollar Island, the dynamic spit of sand that connected to the main beach years ago and now wraps around in front of Hideaway Beach, is a natural beach that is unstable; with ever changing erosion, scarps and wash overs, it will be difficult for a turtle to find a suitable nesting beach. From the Tigertail Lagoon south to Residents’ Beach, the area is wide and low. (This is where Sand Dollar Island connected to the main beach.)
Due to the low elevation and poor percolation of the sand, the standing water and wetness of the area has Mary measuring water levels with water gages. The Loggerhead sea turtle nest is typically eighteen inches in depth. If water levels are less than this, Mary must move the nest carefully to a suitable beach. Last, is the beach area from Residents’ Beach south to Cape Marco. Mary states, “This beach is really the best habitat.” She goes on to explain that, in the past, this area “has the highest success rate for nesting” due to sand type, slope of beach, and dryness. Earlier this season the beach was tilled to improve compaction rates for nesting.
The Loggerhead sea turtle population has declined throughout the state of Florida over the last decade. Marco Island’s population, Mary reported, “has held its own.” Artificial lights confuse sea turtles and interfere with their natural instincts. Too often this results in discouraging the female from nesting – she emerges from the Gulf ready to lay her eggs, but is confused or disorientated, 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 93 “false crawls.” 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. With only one out of a thousand hatchlings making it to maturity, every hatchling counts to sustain this species’ population. Last nesting season, in 2009, there were 55 nests on Marco Island beaches, with 46 of these hatching. (Six nests were washed out by a storm and three were actually identified as “false crawls.) Close to 4,000 hatchlings were produced. Yes, every hatchling counts!
Beachfront property owners are notified each year to turn off unnecessary outdoor lights, shade windows, and shield lights from the beach. There was a higher number than usual of disorientation of hatching nests—eight occurred last season. One of the disorientations was proved to be from a known light source; the others were determined to be from “urban glow.” So, not only beachfront property owners should participate, but all coastal residents, businesses, and public entities should turn off all unnecessary outdoor lights by 9 PM to help reduce urban glow impacts (and save money).
Please take this special opportunity and the responsibility to ensure protection of these imperiled marine animals, both adults and hatchlings, in your own backyard! With your help and compliance, disorientation can be a “zero” occurrence. Sea turtles and people can easily coexist if we take action to preserve and share our common habitat—Marco Island’s beautiful beach! In the effort to support the Collier County Sea Turtle Monitoring Program and to help prevent disorientation from occurring and protect the sea turtles, the City of Marco Island will strictly enforce the following ordinances: Ordinance 01-35 (Sea Turtle Protection), Ordinance 99-7 (Lighting Regulations), and Ordinance 98-12 (Beach Ordinance).
- Any lights visible to the beach after 9 PM should be turned off, shielded, or otherwise modified between the dates of May 1 through October 31.
- To ensure compliance, property managers, beach vendors, and/or residents, please step out on the beach at 9 PM, view the building or vendor area to determine what lights need shading or turning off. If you can see the direct light or your shadow on the beach, the light is too bright!
- 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.
- To report dead or injured sea turtles or disoriented hatchlings, please immediately call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Alert Hotline 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).
Thank you in advance for your commitment and effort in making it possible for this threatened species to coexist with us on our beautiful beach.
Nancy Richie is the Environmental Specialist for the City of Marco Island, you can reach her at 239-389-5003.