Inspired by the celebration of World Sea Turtle Week, I’m sharing photos of volunteers monitoring sea turtles on Sanibel Island.
The photos illustrate the important role that conservation organizations and volunteers play in protecting sea turtles and educating the public.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation monitors 18 miles of beach, from the Sanibel lighthouse to Redfish Pass, every day during sea turtle breeding season – from April 15 to October.
More than 100 volunteers participate in the sea turtle monitoring program.
Volunteers are required to attend a training session and commit their time for the entire sea turtle season.
While walking on the beach, I encountered a team of volunteers one morning in late July (several years ago). They welcomed me to watch them at work and answered questions I had.
Locating new nests
The volunteers drive the beach daily, looking for turtle tracks between the ocean and the dunes that indicate that a female sea turtle has come ashore to lay her eggs – which can be as many as 100 eggs.
When the volunteers find turtle tracks, they follow the tracks and check the nesting site to see if the sea turtle laid eggs.
Plastics and lights impede nesting
Sometimes the turtle returns back to the ocean without laying her eggs, which is called non-nesting emergence. That can happen because obstacles — beach furniture or trash on the beach (especially plastic objects) — impede the turtle.
Lights also can prevent turtles from laying their eggs. Sea turtles come onto the beach at night to lay their eggs. Lights from cellphones, flashlights, flash photography, or car/truck headlights can cause a turtle to return back to the ocean before laying her eggs.
Marking and protecting nests
Once the volunteers find a nest, they install wire screen over the top of the nest as a deterrent to predators, such as raccoons and dogs. The openings in the screen are large enough for the sea turtle hatchlings to crawl through.
Then, they mark the nest by installing posts and tape around the nest. Each nest receives an identification number and is included in the foundation’s database for monitoring.
Each nest site includes a sign with information for those who encounter the site.
The volunteers worked smoothly as a team — completing the marking of a new nest and checking on adjacent previously marked nests. They were excited about the discovery of new nests and were pleased that established nests had not been disturbed by animals or people.
Once the new nest was marked and data recorded, the volunteers continued their drive along the beach — looking for the next sea turtle nest.
Challenges for hatchlings
The incubation period for sea turtles is two months. Then the hatchlings have the challenge of crawling to the ocean. Their progress can be obstructed by beach litter (with plastics being the major problem), holes in the beach or beach furniture.
Once in the ocean, the hatchlings can be the prey of seabirds and fish. The turtles also can get caught in fishing line, fishing nets or in plastics in the ocean. Only 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survive to adulthood.
Thanks to the volunteers at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation for their efforts to protect sea turtles — and to the thousands of volunteers worldwide.
And a reminder that all of us can help protect sea turtles.
Check out the Florida State Parks sea turtle webpage for information about sea turtle nesting and for coloring sheets of sea turtles and Sea Turtle Critter Sheets.