Sea Turtle Nesting on Marco Island
It’s an amazing site to see a picture of a loggerhead sea turtle nesting on Marco Island (photo credit: Mary Nelson and Maura Kraus). Since most of the turtle nesting takes place in the night time hours, few residents or visitors will ever get to see this with the naked eye.
Mary “The Turtle Lady”
Mary Nelson, Marco Island’s “Turtle Lady” rides her ATM every morning at 6 am from May through October along the beaches of Marco Island to monitor turtle nesting and hatching. Her round trip takes her from Sand Dollar on Tigertail Beach to the tip of South Beach and back, and then onto Hideaway Beach. The 9 miles that she travels takes around 3 hours each morning.
Her monitoring begins with marking new nests. By riding along the tide line Mary can easily pinpoint where a female sea turtle has crawled onto the beach. Their markings look like tire tracks (drag marks) in the sand with v-shaped indents on either side. If a turtle does nest, it can be identified by a large mound in the sand near the turtle’s track marks. The area is roped off with caution tape and a yellow flyer is attached identifying it as an active nest. By tracking and sketching each sea turtle “crawl,” she can determine where a nest was laid or if the nesting was interrupted,also known as a “false crawl.”
Another part of Mary’s job is to know when sea turtle nests are close to hatching. It takes sixty days for the rubbery eggs to mature into baby sea turtles. Sex is determined based on egg position in the nest. Colder eggs become males and warmer eggs become females.
Mary has seen a lot of false crawls and successful sea turtle nesting since she started monitoring Marco’s sea turtles in 1995. She has also seen a lot of changes to the beach and to the island.
Sea Turtle Nesting
During the night, when it is dark and quiet, the female sea turtle comes ashore to lay her nest. Instinct drives her to find the spot where she was born. She crawls across the sand in a slow alternative gait and when she finds the spot, she removes the top layer of sand. With her hind flippers, she scoops out a cupful at a time and sets it to one side. The other flipper does the same until she can’t reach anymore sand, about 18 inches deep and close to eight inches in diameter.
She then positions herself over the cavity and starts dropping her eggs until the cavity is filled, averaging about 120-125 eggs per nest. When done, she will cover the cavity with her back flippers packing it firmly and with her front flippers she tosses sand over the cavity. Slowly she goes back into the gulf, and the sand on her back is an indication that she has nested. The entire process takes about an hour. She comes back to the beach in about 10-14 days and lays another nest, and may do this three to seven times in one season.
Last year Marco Island had 107 nests and 191 false crawls. As of July 16, 2018 there were 55 nests and 98 false crawls on the island, and two of the nests had hatched.
Sea turtles use the natural light reflecting off the water in order to orient themselves. Artificial lighting not only deters females from nesting but also disorients hatchlings leaving the nest.
Why so many false crawls?
•Noise and activity at the beach at night.
•Objects on the beach left overnight.
•Barriers such as sheds and trailers along the dune line.
•Lights on the beach. Marco has become very bright at night.
Sea Turtle Hatching
So what happens when these little guys and gals begin to hatch? Mary will often surround the back end and sides of the nest with black plastic to help the turtles head in the right direction. After a successful hatch, Mary will count the number of eggs per nest as well as the number that hatched.
It is estimated that only 1 out of 1,000 sea turtles actually makes it into adulthood. With an average of about 100 eggs per nest, this means that only one sea turtle out of ten nests will survive. This is why their preservation is so important and why the island’s residents takes sea turtle nesting on Marco Island very seriously.
How Can You Help?
Artificial light from condos and hotels on the beach can cause the turtles to walk in the wrong direction as they are genetically inclined to head toward the moonlight. During sea turtle season, the condos and hotels along the beach comply with strict lighting rules in order to reduce the number of turtles that crawl in the wrong direction. If you are ever lucky enough to come across sea turtle hatchlings at night, do not take their picture. Newborns are very sensitive to light and can become disoriented or blinded by the flash.
Sea turtle nesting on Marco Island requires help from both residents of the island and visitors to the beach areas. Many residents volunteer their time to assist in watching turtle nests, especially near hatching time.
How can you help? Keep the beach clean from straws, plastic and fishing line. Fill in holes dug in the sand. And turn off lights or draw shades on windows at 9pm, keeping the beach dark and quiet.
Note: This blog was adapted from the July 19, 2018 Coastal Breeze News.
At Sea Mar Condo, we ask all our guests to comply with turtle nesting season rules and regulations.
Visit our website at www.seamarcondo to see our rates and availability. Our website also provides more information on Sea Mar Condo and Marco Island. Let us help you make the most of your Marco Island vacation!