Thursday, June 23, 2016
By Eric Staats of the Naples Daily News
It's happening again on Southwest Florida beaches.
A loggerhead sea turtle emerges from the darkness of the Gulf of Mexico, digs a hole with its rear flippers, lays 100 or so ping-pong ball-sized eggs in it, covers it with sand, and then crawls back below the waves.
Mama was long gone by the time turtle trackers found the telltale flipper tracks at daylight Tuesday. They came out of the Gulf in front of a mansion in the 2600 block of Gordon Drive — leading monitors to the first nest of the young turtle nesting season in Naples.
One of Southwest Florida's most awaited natural cycles officially began Sunday and runs through Oct. 31, along with lighting restrictions that are meant to keep beachfront lights from discouraging nesting sea turtles or confusing hatchlings racing to make it back into the Gulf.
As of Wednesday morning, monitors also had found two nests on Keewaydin Island — including one that could be from a loggerhead the Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been tracking since 1988 — one at Lovers Key State Park, two on Fort Myers Beach and four on Captiva Island.
Loggerheads are not storming the beach like they were last year in Collier, where turtles laid 16 nests in the first week of nesting compared to just one nest this year, said the county's sea turtle program coordinator Maura Kraus."We're hoping for a good one," Kraus said. "It's off to a slow start, but we always hope for a good one."
There's still a long way to go: Last year, countywide turtle monitors counted 1,511 nests, of which 921 hatched. That compares to 1,378 nests laid in 2014 on Collier beaches.
The number of nests only tells part of the story.
Last year, of the 881 nests monitored by Collier County, predators destroyed 116 of them, an increase from 59 in 2014.
And, of the nests that hatched, monitors estimated 43,500 baby sea turtles made it to the Gulf, a decrease from 2014, when monitors estimated almost 58,000 hatchlings climbed out of the nests. Only one in 1,000 baby sea turtles survives to adulthood.
Florida's loggerheads, which are considered one step removed from endangered species status, have been posting improved nesting numbers since a low of 28,000 in 2007 on the state's core index beaches. Last year, monitors counted more than 47,000 nests on those beaches in 2015, still fewer than peak years of almost 60,000 nests in 1998 and 2012.
Of all the thousands of turtles, there's Emily. That's what Conservancy of Southwest Florida senior biologist David Addison calls her.
He's been watching her comings and goings from Keewaydin Island since 1988, at first using flipper tags to keep track of her, and then electronic chips. But when they put a satellite tag on the back of Emily's shell in 2009, that's when she really showed her stuff.
Trackers watched on computer screens, ping by ping, as Emily made the slow migration from Keewaydin Island, through the Florida Straits to Andros Island in the Bahamas, a roughly 350-mile journey. She wouldn't come back until 2011.
Monitors almost missed her. Addison said Emily's satellite tag had failed, leaving trackers in the dark, but she still had her electronic chip. Monitors routinely scan nesting turtles for the chip, and when they scanned Emily, she was re-revealed to them.
They replaced her satellite tag and let her go on her way, which was back to Andros Island. She came back to Keewaydin Island in 2013. Curious, monitors replaced her satellite tag again. Emily returned to Andros Island.
Then trackers waited, and watched, as Emily missed the 2014 nesting season at Keewaydin. She missed last year, too. And then she started moving again.
She was pinging off the Keewaydin coast, between Naples and Marco Island, last week and over the weekend, about the same time monitors found the new nests there.
Addison can't say for sure they are Emily's.
The nests are due to hatch in late June. Addison said monitors will check the nests for dead hatchlings or embryos, take a sample of tissue and compare it with Emily's DNA.
Then he will know.
"They do what they do, and if you're patient, they'll tell you a story," Addison said.
Eric is a senior writer and weekend editor. He joined the Naples Daily News in 1989 and has covered business, real estate and City Hall and has worked as an assistant city editor. He currently writes about environmental issues in Southwest Florida.