Ominous clouds hang overhead as we travel a short boat ride from the Reserve’s Ten Thousand Islands Field Station to the Cape Romano Complex. Joined by two Reserve staff members, I recently embarked on my first sea turtle monitoring trip. I wanted to see and learn first-hand what the Friends’ Adopt-A-Sea-Turtle-Nest Program was helping support. Excited about the morning ahead, I would quickly come to learn the joys and challenges the team faces monitoring beaches and protecting nests every day from May 1 to October 31.
After landing on our first beach, we were quick to spot a loggerhead sea turtle’s tracks. Although the tracks were easy to identify, locating the egg chamber within the nesting area was far more challenging. Staff gave me a quick tutorial on ‘reading’ a nest site by examining both the tracks and body pit created by the sea turtle. Narrowing our search location, we gingerly dug with our hands, while constantly swatting away mosquitoes and noseeums. After what seemed to be an eternity, I was greeted with jubilation as an area of soft sand finally revealed my first sea turtle egg!
Finding the eggs is critical so that a metal wire cage can be set up around them in order to protect eggs from predation and inadvertent human impacts. While predation may not be such an issue on all nesting beaches (which is why you might only see flagged stakes identifying nests along Naples’ beaches), cages are deployed in the Cape Romano Complex due to heavy predation by raccoons and other wildlife. Trenches are dug around the nest and sand is back-filled in order to secure the cage. While I was raking away the turtle tracks, Reserve staff tagged the cage, logged GPS coordinates, and recorded site characteristics, including distance from the ocean and vegetation, as well as mapping out the turtle’s crawl pattern. These data are shared with other agencies also working to protect sea turtles in SW Florida. I left my first sea turtle nest site with an incredibly positive feeling that we had just given these eggs a fighting chance at becoming hatchlings.
Our monitoring continued throughout the morning, power walking long stretches of beach in order to cover such a large territory. As the clouds broke, our cool morning was replaced by blazing sun and stifling 93-degree heat. After nearly six hours, my fingers were numb from digging and I was drenched in sweat. Fortunately, we successfully identified and logged six new nests, four of which we protected with cages. The remaining two were flagged only because we could not find the eggs. Additionally, we recorded numerous ‘false crawls’ (a sea turtle’s change of mind and return to sea without nesting). Overall, a very successful outing.
Heading back to the dock, I embraced the cool breeze and had a chance to reflect on the day’s work. Staff, interns and volunteers battle mosquitoes and unbearable heat daily throughout the summer months in an effort to protect an incredible creature of the sea. Being able to participate in one of their monitoring trips has given me a completely new appreciation for their hard work. It is definitely not for everyone. But the dedicated individuals here locally and those monitoring beaches throughout our coastal communities are one reason sea turtle populations have a fighting chance against human impacts and predation.
To all the individuals who have already adopted a nest - thank you! We are 65% toward our season goal. If you are interested in learning more and supporting our sea turtle interns, consider supporting our Adopt-A-Sea-Turtle-Nest Program.
Friends of Rookery Bay Executive Director