The first sea turtle nest of the 2013 season on Fort Myers Beach hatched last week, and more than 100 hatchlings are believed to be on their way to safer, southern waters.
Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield, assisted by Florida Gulf Coast University intern Allie Bury, conducted the successful excavation in a residential area just south of Junkanoo's on the Beach at 7:30 a.m. on July 31. Due to no wayward tracks (disorientations) found the Sunday prior when the nest hatched, the ladies are confident 102 recorded hatchlings out of the 117 found eggs made it to the Gulf waters to begin their journey by swimming for their lives and using the Gulf Stream in hopes to reach the Sargasso Sea, where they use the Sargassum as cover from predators until they are mature.
The 87-percent success rate from the hatched nest -which was not the first nest to be built, rather the seventh- comes almost exactly at the halfway point of the sea turtle nesting season (May 1- Oct. 31) and nearly to the day of last year's first nest activity. The Beach has 43 nests so far this year compared to roughly 64 nests at this time last year and 27 nests in 2011.
Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield, left, begins the excavation process while FGCU intern Allie Bury watches intently.
"It's a relief that we are getting some turtles out there," said Haverfield. "It feels like we are trying to race with any impending storm. Last year, we lost so many opportunities to replenish the population. This year, we are hoping we can get as many hatchlings out there as possible."
The full process began on May 31, when a female loggerhead decided to create a body pit by the displacement of sand and then lay eggs. Unfortunately, she chose to nest in a gulley on the beachfront across the street from Red Coconut RV Park, but the nest was relocated before any tidal or rain event.
Since it was relocated, Haverfield had a chance to count how many eggs were within the nest area at that time and only had to count the unhatched ones during the excavation.
At the time of the relocation, she also made a note that the nest had some abnormal eggs. During the excavation, one egg was found open but the hatchling embryo did not survive. Seven nests have been relocated this year.
The excavation results become part of a report that is sent to the Sea Turtle Marine Division of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is passed on to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.
After the excavation, Haverfield placed a birth announcement on a stake left over to show beach walkers the vital numbers and when the hatching occurred.
Turtle Time volunteers, who monitor the nests each morning shortly after sunrise, are trained to notice when a nest has been vacated. Telltale signs include an 8-inch concave area at the nest location and little tracks that (hopefully) lead to the Gulf.
On this day, one of the 102 hatchlings did not make the journey back to the Gulf with his brothers and sisters on the evening of July 28. Yet, it was found healthy and active during the Wednesday excavation.
Haverfield said it was trapped in a root within the nest and would be released into the Gulf that evening. She sprinkled the rescued hatchling with some water to get the sand out of its eyes before placing it in a bucket in the interim. The hatchling was not released immediately due to the time of day when the elements and bird prey would be deterrents.
"It was very close to the surface in an alcove, so it had air supply," said Haverfield. "We got it out in time."
Since July 31, five more nests have hatched for a total of six as of Tuesday. Unfortunately, one of those nests experienced a disorientation due to improper lighting on the south end of the island. Instead of running toward the Gulf, the hatchlings saw the artificial lighting and headed that way.
The first built nest on Fort Myers Beach finally hatched at the 74-day mark last week with 88 hatchlings making it out of 91 eggs. Turtle Time officials are allowed to dig after a 70-day evaluation stretch, but Haverfield decided to wait a couple of extra days since it took 72 days for the first nest to hatch on Bonita Beach.
Now that hatchlings have begun to emerge from nests, the so-called Turtle Lady says it is vital to follow the basic rules of sea turtle season by removing beach furniture at night, shielding outdoor lights and using amber LED light bulbs. It is against state law to disturb or trap a sea turtle. Disturbance includes flash photography.
"Now is the time for people to be extremely responsible about lighting," she said. "Unfortunately, turning the switch off is just not effective enough. We need to start investing in amber LED lighting, which is very cost effective."
Last year, a major disorientation due to a lighting infraction was recorded near the first excavation site.
"Fortunately, the house near there managed by Bayfront Realty is now in total compliance with proper amber LED lighting," said Haverfield. "Ultimately, that's our goal, to take advantage of the advanced technology in lighting. There should not be any question that people's safety is compromised or the ability for sea turtles to survive. We need to find a good balance."
Turtle Time monitors not only Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, but Big Hickory Island, Bunche Beach and a small segment in Bokeelia.