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Sea turtle nesting season goes gangbusters despite the coastal ravages of Hurricane Ian

 A sea turtle hatchling makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from a nest on Sanibel Island in July 2023
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
A sea turtle hatchling makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from a nest on Sanibel Island in July 2023

Hurricane Ian decimated Southwest Florida beaches last September, but it does not bother sea turtles this summer: the nesting season is on track to be one of the best in recent years

Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc last September and in no place was it more noticeable than along Southwest Florida's coastline, where winds of 150 mph pushed a storm surge of churning water 15 feet deep over barrier islands for hours.

Homes and businesses were flattened; beaches reshaped, or gone.

Southwest Florida was paralyzed. There was no water or power for days. For weeks people scrambled for food, shelter, and generators. At least 146 people died in 19 counties, nearly half in Lee.

It is clear, however, that at some point during the last 110 million years of co-existence, destructive hurricanes and the gentle sea turtle must have come to an understanding.

Ten months after the Category 4 Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County some people remain without a place to live. Others are in FEMA trailers. Destroyed homes and businesses litter Fort Myers Beach, some still as they were the day after the superstorm made landfall on Sept. 28.

"We’re confident it is going to be a successful nesting season."
Denise Juergens, lead volunteer with the Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association on Gasparilla Island

Sea turtles, however, were able to put one flipper in front of the other and get right back to it. So much so that halfway through this year's April-September nesting season is shaping up to be a record-setter.

“We were wondering what the impacts would be from the hurricane,” said Denise Juergens, the lead volunteer with the Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association on Gasparilla Island. "Statewide they are up overall. But specifically in our area, Southwest Florida, they’re even, surprisingly, up year-over-year. "

For sea turtles, who have been dealing with severe weather events in and near the oceans for longer than homo-sapiens have been homo-sapiens, living through strong hurricanes and their aftermaths are old hat.

"We’re confident it is going to be a successful nesting season," Juergens said.

'Pretty exciting'

Sea turtles date back to the late Cretaceous period, which means they also found a way to survive the tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, and velociraptors.

During the tens of millions of years since, sea turtles have become a keystone species integral to certain aspects of the ocean's health, including maintaining productive coral reef ecosystems to transporting nutrients from the oceans to beaches and coastal dunes.

Florida State Parks

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says nearly all species of sea turtles have increased nesting numbers around the state. The agency’s most recent sea turtle nesting season totals are from the end of May and include four of the seven species that nest in the Sunshine State.

At that point, there were 35,495 loggerheads nests compared to 25,445 last year at the same time, 2,086 green turtle nests compared to 167 in 2022, and ten Kemp’s ridley nests compared to seven last year. Leatherback turtle nests are down from 1,434 to 1,194 at the end of May.

Even more impressive about his year’s high number of sea turtle nests in Southwest Florida is that it’s happening on beaches that are either unrecognizable compared to pre-storm conditions, or are filled with the men and machines and noise and commotion that come with beach rebuilding.

Normally not allowed during summer months due to the disruption to sea turtle nesting season, beach renourishments have been ongoing all year because the threat that no sandy barriers pose to human lives and property trumps that of even an endangered species.

If in the way of the work, sea turtle nests, which are marked with four stakes in the sand that secure red or yellow warning tape, were either moved by experts or worked around by the beach rebuilders. Still, studies show that even expert sea turtle nest finders miss about 15 percent on any given beach — yet record nesting numbers are in play.

On Gasparilla Island, Jergens said as of June 30 there were 558 nests, down from 661 at the same time last summer, but still within the normal range of fluctuations in the number of nests from year to year.

“I don't think it's significant,” she said. “The number of green sea turtles that we had nest through the end of June was 14 and we also had 14 through the end of June last year so we're right on the money. That’s pretty exciting.”

Eat, sleep, repeat

Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida just after sea turtle nesting season ended in 2022. Most of the adults were probably long gone from the beaches near where they mated and the females later dropped up to 120 eggs in a teardrop-shaped hole of her own flipper-shovel-making.

 Female sea turtle nesting on Florida's West Coast in 2023
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Female sea turtle nesting on Florida's West Coast in 2023

A female turtle nests every few years, often creating more than one clutch. She fills in each then flips sand all over the place to camouflage the eggs, which coyotes — and some humans — find tasty. Sea turtles are a protected species; anyone unauthorized found messing with a nest can face pricey fines and serve jail time.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville is one of many groups dedicated to the animal and seeks to learn more about its long life.

The group says that due to the inherent difficulties in studying marine turtles in the open ocean, there are many things unknown about their behavior. Much of what is known is gleaned from the rare moments when females are on land — digging nests and laying eggs.

When not doing the human equivalent of dating, mating, and taking care of the nursery arrangements, sea turtles tend to roam the oceans alone, feeding and resting.

The species’ diets vary. Green turtles are fond of algae, seagrasses, and seaweed, while leatherbacks like jellyfish and sea squirts. Loggerheads dine on crabs, conchs, and horseshoe crabs, hawksbills eat almost exclusively sponges, and the olive ridley is more of a “seafood night” buffet turtle feasting on crabs, shrimp, lobster, sea urchins, jellies, algae, and fish.

The conservancy says adult turtles often sleep at the surface while in deep water, or on the bottom wedged under rocks nearshore. Hatchlings tend to sleep floating on the surface, with their tiny front flippers folded back over the top of their backs.

‘Very few nests damaged’

On Sanibel and Captiva islands, the first baby sea turtles started crawling from their nests on June 21 and since then 387 hatchlings have made it into the Gulf of Mexico and swam off.

“Our volunteers have been incredibly busy this year, and we are so grateful for the long hours they’re spending on the beach to protect our sea turtles,” said Jack Brzoza, an SCCF sea turtle biologist. “We are on track for a record-breaking nesting season, with more than 855 nests on Sanibel and Captiva so far this season, including 18 green sea turtle nests.”

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s sea turtle program keeps track of nesting data from Longboat Key south 35 miles to Venice Beach, and last year’s nesting season in the region resulted in the fourth-highest number of nests in the program’s 40-year history.

This year’s nesting numbers are besting that.

For the week ending July 1, staff and volunteers at Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program recorded 3,301 sea turtle nests, up from 2,945 during the same week last summer. In 2021, there were 2,123 nests during the same time period.

Hurricane Ian didn’t damage the beaches in Sarasota County enough to worry turtles watchers last season, but it was close.

“Although Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, nesting beaches documented by Mote luckily experienced the storm at the tail-end of nesting season,” Mote wrote on their website about the 2022 nesting season. “Without having seen any new nests since the last week of August, there were very few nests damaged and all of the research nests survived resulting in minimal impact on the successful season.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Bayles, Tom

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Tom Bayles
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