Sea turtle nesting season officially kicked off on Monday.
Scientists know turtles with satellite tags on them did pretty well during Hurricane Ian, but now it’s time for them to lay eggs in conditions that aren’t ideal, which has environmental leaders worried about hatching.
Tiny tracks leading from the water to higher ground on Fort Myers Beach are a telltale sign that sea turtle nesting season is here.
”You can see she crawled up through here and made her way looking for some elevation and some dune vegetation, ran into the rocks and rubble,” said Chadd Chustz, environmental project manager on Fort Myers Beach.
Not an ideal location to drop her eggs. The turtle-to-be ultimately decided the rocky patch was not the best place to start her family, and her tracks go back to the water. Chustz believes rubble left behind by Ian is just one way the storm will affect this nesting season.
“We also lost a lot of dune vegetation,” Chustz said. “That’s something that the momma turtles look forward to go and lay their eggs in. So, without that dune vegetation, they’re struggling a little bit to find the right place to lay their eggs.”
Less vegetation and fewer structures to block light onto the beach will also be an issue.
“Now we have houses that are two and three, four houses back from Estero Boulevard, but they’re now essentially Gulf-front,” Chustz said. “So, even back on those houses, it’s important for them to come to the beach, take a look at their lighting and make some adjustments for the turtles.”
The moon and stars’ reflection on the water is a turtle hatchling’s road map to the ocean. Lights from our homes, both exterior and interior, can lead them astray
”We ask that people look for amber LEDs and put them in fixtures that are downward-directed and shielded away from the beach,” Chustz said.
Fort Myers Beach is making its own adjustments for the turtles. Piles of sand will form a berm 6 feet above sea level to protect the eggs from water if there’s a storm, giving the tiny turtles a better chance.
Fort Myers Beach has regulations in place to protect the animals: People are asked to close their curtains at sunset to stop interior light from hitting the beach, install proper exterior lights and fill in any holes they dug on the beach before they leave.
And another big thing is to keep the beach dark for nesting turtles, so put your flashlights away.
“This is the time of year when loggerhead sea turtles start heading towards our beaches from their foraging grounds,” said Kelly Sloan, coastal wildlife director at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
If you see tracks in the sand, know that they belong to a sea turtle who just returned from months of swimming hundreds or even thousands of miles. Although May 1 is the official sea turtle nesting season start date, Sloan’s turtles get busy earlier on the barrier islands.
“We have about 12 nests on our beach right now already,” Sloan said. “So, you know, we expect to see about 800 to 1,000 this year on our beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.”
One particular loggerhead turtle on Captiva was crowned the second of the season and was likely a returnee.
“A sea turtle imprints on the beach that they’re born on,” Sloan said. “A lot of the time, they’ll come back to the same exact spot to lay their eggs about 25 or 30 years later.”
In an ever-changing Southwest Florida, chances are that beach will look different to the new mom upon her return. This season, Ian’s storm surge forced many changes, too.
“After a hurricane, studies have shown that the vegetation is thinned out and lights that weren’t previously visible from the beach have become visible,” Sloan said. “Maybe it’s never been a problem before, but now the sea turtles can see that white light on your house.”
Those lights can outshine the turtles’ compass: the moon.
“On a moonless night, the lights from the homes are often brighter, brighter than the sea,” Sloan said. “They’ll go the wrong direction, and they will end up dying of dehydration or predation. Or sometimes they’ll even get squished by cars.”
Sea turtle species range from vulnerable to critically endangered, but Southwest Florida had its best turtle nesting season on record last year. The hope is for a new record this year.