Sea turtle nesting season may impact Fort Myers Beach and surrounding beaches earlier than expected in Lee County.
One might expect to see tractor-like tracks caused by the season's first reptiles of the annual ritual across local beachfronts at a record-setting arrival time due to the warm winter and rising Gulf temperatures, according to Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield.
Sea turtles make their arrival known when the Gulf waters warm up to roughly 80 degrees. That is when the mating season begins about 20 miles offshore, and females make their way onto beaches to nest after dark.
Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield informed Beach Library conference room visitors about sea turtle history.
"The last time I looked the Gulf temperature was 77 degrees," Haverfield said to a group at the Beach Library Thursday. "We are approaching that. That is why we are getting prepared."
The earliest documented turtle nesting in the area occurred on Bonita Beach on April 22, 1997, while the earliest nest sighting on Fort Myers Beach was on the beachfront by Dakota Street on April 29, 2008. Code enforcement doesn't begin until turtle season becomes official on May 1.
The anticipation is both exciting and unnerving, says the "turtle lady."
"Since sea turtle season doesn't really start until May 1, that means there may still be beach furniture out on the beach and beach rakers leveling the island's beachfront," said Haverfield. "So, we are concerned that maybe someone will drive over a track. That's why we are asking everyone to be vigilant so that no turtle nests are harmed."
Harming an endangered species nest is still illegal, warns Haverfield.
"So, we just need all eyes to be at attention," she said. "Sea turtles play a vital role in maintaining the health of our oceans."
One will notice female turtle arrival by the large tracks they leave in their wake. The excavation process begins.
"With their rear flippers, she will excavate a nest close to two feet deep. When she can no longer bring up sand, she will lay on the average 120 ping pong sized eggs," said Haverfield. "When she is done, she covers the nest, compresses the sand and begins camouflaging so that predators do not see where the actual nest is."
Haverfield says the nesting process of an individual female sea turtle may happen seven to nine times per season. Out of roughly 1,000 eggs laid, only one to four may survive to return 40 to 50 years later.
"That's OK, because it has worked for more than 200 million years. It's only when we people upset that balance that it is not natural," she said.
When a nest is found, Turtle Time volunteers, who walk the beach daily just after sunrise, rope off the area so that the eggs can hatch in peace.
About two months later, the turtle hatchling cuts his way out of the egg and slaps against the next egg. Pretty soon, everybody is hatchling," said Haverfield. "First, it takes them three to five days to straighten up, and then they begin to get hyper. They scratch at the ceiling of the nest, the sand filters down, the floor builds up and scurry to the Gulf just after sunset."
The process continues as the hatchlings make it to the water and swim nonstop for the next 24 hours.
"They don't need to stop to feed, because all the yoke from the egg is there food supply inside," said Haverfield. "After 24 hours, that's when they'll find the Sargasso seaweed where there are all types of food. They'll stay there for just about a year."