Friday, December 2, 2022

‘Tis The SEA-SON For Sea Turtles

Stepping Stones

Photos by Bob McConville \ Juvenile sea turtles may display remarkable colors on their “carapace” or shell.

Not teenage, not mutant, not ninja, just turtles. Sea turtles, and lots of them, are on their way to Florida’s many beaches. From Sarasota and Collier counties on the west coast to Broward County on northward to Volusia County on the east coast, thousands of these air-breathing reptiles are now laying their eggs in our state.

Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth and have virtually remained unchanged for 100 million years. Their powerful front flippers, large size and hydrodynamic shape have provided them all that they have needed to survive without change. 

In Florida, five of the seven sea turtle species can be found: green turtle, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley. In the Marco Island area we primarily find the loggerhead and green sea turtles, but a surprise visit by the rarely seen leatherback has been recorded on our coast. Let’s meet them…

Loggerhead: This is the most common sea turtle found in Florida and is named for its huge, block-like head. Its upper shell, or carapace, is reddish-brown on top and the lower shell (plastron) is creamy yellow. As is the case with all sea turtles, the adult male has a long tail while the female’s tail is short. Each flipper has two claws. The jaws are extremely powerful and can easily crush crabs, clams and even conch shells. It is a slow swimmer compared to other species but high in stamina to swim great distances. Loggerhead nests are what we find in abundance this time of year on Marco Island and the surrounding shores, with an occasional green turtle nest here or there. On Florida’s east coast, the Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge serves as a nursery for nearly one quarter of all loggerhead nests in the Western Hemisphere.

Green Turtle: This species is more streamlined than the loggerhead and the carapace is olive-brown with darker streaks. The name is derived from the green body fat or “calipee” which formed the basis of green turtle soup, eaten by early settlers to our region. In the mid 1800’s merchants discovered that the turtles could be kept alive by turning them on their backs in a shaded area. By 1878, about 15,000 of this species each year were being shipped to England. About 500 to 1,000 green turtles nest on Florida beaches each year from June to September.

Although they can stay under water for extended periods of time, sea turtles need to breathe air.

Leatherback: The largest of the sea turtle species, these reptiles travel farther, dive deeper and tolerate cold water better than any others. They average a length of six feet and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, with the largest on record tipping the scales at nearly 2,000 pounds. Instead of a hard shell it is covered with a firm leathery skin, which has seven ridges running lengthwise down its back. They have been known to dive as deep as 3,000 feet in search of their prime food, jellyfish.

It was quite a surprise that Collier County scientists not too long ago, while digging out a turtle nest, discovered the very first leatherback nest in our area.

Only a handful of sightings of these giants are known over here.

Hawksbill: If you like diving in the Florida Keys you are likely to see this species. They are the most tropical of all sea turtles. With an amber-colored background, markings of black and brown will be noticed on the carapace. They weigh from 100 to 200 pounds. Raptor-like jaws award this species its name and they are ideally suited for ripping sponges from a reef. Even though sponges have tiny, glasslike needles, this diet seems to cause the hawksbill no harm. Nests have been located from the Keys to the Cape Canaveral coast.

Kemp’s Ridley: Nests here in Florida are rare but we do see this species traveling through our waters. It is one of the smallest sea turtles, reaching two feet in length and about 100 pounds fully grown. Although the carapace is almost as wide as it is long, it is considered oval in shape and the coloring will be olive-gray. Primary nesting locations are on the west side of the Gulf of Mexico near the Texas/Mexico borders. A 1947 film documented nearly 40,000 females emerging from the water near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. A lack of protection in this area saw the numbers decline in 1985 to just over 700 nests. Turtle excluder devices and strict enforcement from poaching on land has seen a resurgence to over 20,000 nests.

Sea turtles face many threats and many of them by humans. They are still hunted for their meat and shells. Even here in Collier County eggs have been stolen. Beaches are subject to habitat loss with the construction of seawalls, housing and other structures. Hatchlings emerging from the nests are lured in the wrong direction by artificial lights on developed beaches. Adults and juveniles could easily perish after consuming plastic bags or bottles (they look like jellyfish) and other forms of marine debris. Turtles of all ages are drowned in shrimp trawls and gill nets.

One of the most important forward steps for turtle survival came in 1989 when all shrimpers in the U.S. were required to implement TEDs, Turtle Exclusion Devices, which allow the turtle an escape route if they are accidentally caught in a net. Prior to TEDs being required an estimated 11,000 sea turtles died each year when trapped in nets.

It is the nesting season here in Florida and regulations will remain in force until the fall. Know the rules if you are a beach resident or visitor and help protect one of the oldest reptiles on earth. If you see one coming out of the water please leave it alone. Do not interfere with the nesting process and do not shine lights on these females. Enjoy the beach, have lots and lots of fun, but respect the activities of these special guests while they are here.

Bob is an owner/operator of the Dolphin Explorer, a dolphin research group and respected ecotour. He is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism (Florida SEE ) and the author of two nature books. Bob loves his wife very much!

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