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Florida: Turtle power

An encounter with baby loggerhead turtles turns a trip to Southern Florida into much more than a beach holiday

Florida: Turtle power
Loggerhead sea turtles. Image: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

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“They’re lively,” shouts Eve into the gale. “I opened the sunroof and windows on the way here so they could smell the ocean air.” Uncovering the bucket, she hands me an inky-eyed loggerhead the size of a child’s palm, his tawny flippers frantically paddling the air — it’s hard to believe he could grow up to be 350lb and over 3ft long.

Once placed on the sand, he instantly scurries towards the lightning-lit horizon alongside the seven other survivors rescued from a flooded nest here on Bonita Beach. Under a leaden sky, huge waves roll in like unfurling carpets, spreading foam-specked patterns around our feet. “The rough sea’s good,” Eve yells. “They’ll be camouflaged…” The wind steals the rest of her words. “From predators,” she mouths.

One has turned, crawling inland. “Wrong way,” Eve laughs, turning him around. “Sometimes they’re a bit confused.” I silently will mine on, as he clambers over a glistening pen shell. Slowed down by the obstacle, he’s the last to reach the shore. A wave crashes over him, and he’s swept along with the swell — reappearing when the tide retreats, a tiny speck on the silvery sand. The second crest engulfs him — and he’s gone. Little is known about the lives of these mysterious creatures; it’s estimated that just one in 1,000 hatchlings make it to maturity, due to the many threats they face.

“I’ve seen some horrific things,” Eve tells me. “Turtles with fishing wire wrapped around their neck, turtles stuck under beach furniture, or crushed on the road. Sometimes, a trauma from a boat propeller.” But it’s more widespread factors such as pollution, development on nesting sites, and shrimp trawling that have kept loggerheads on the endangered species list since 1978. Turtle excluder devices have since been introduced on shrimp nets in an attempt to provide an escape route for trapped loggerheads — who, when relaxed, are able to stay underwater for hours, but can drown in minutes when panicked.

That evening, on the foreshore, I pass what looks like a scene from CSI: Miami. Yellow tape — fluorescing in the glow of a streetlight — cordons off a string of small squares dotted with patches of greenery. Turtle nests, Eve clarifies; discovered by volunteers from Turtle Time, a non-profit organisation she founded that’s dedicated to loggerhead conservation. Every morning at sunrise, from April to October, they trawl the sun-drenched beaches between Fort Myers and the Lee-Collier County border, marking and observing new nests or excavating hatched ones. Using their hands, they scoop sand out from the nests, counting the hatched eggs — and releasing any stragglers into the Gulf of Mexico.

Pinned on a wooden stake is a sign. ‘Violators are subject to fines and imprisonment,’ it warns. Curious passers-by shining flashlights can disturb nesting females and disorientate hatchlings, drawing them away from the naturally lit ocean horizon. If they wander too far, they can die from exhaustion and dehydration or stray into roads and driveways. However, conservation efforts like Eve’s, here in southwest Florida, appear to be paying dividends.

“In 1989, there were only five nests on Fort Myers beach; this season’s seen a record of 92,” Eve tells me. This success is largely due to a shift in behaviour. Tourists and locals are now urged to draw room blinds to prevent glare and rely on moonlight for night-time strolls — or a turtle-friendly flashlight pointed downwards if that’s not enough. Resorts are encouraged to preserve wilder, untamed stretches of dune-lined sand rather than turning them into manicured, raked deserts, and to stash beach furniture away after 9pm. Most importantly, they now have to use amber LED bulbs angled away from the beach.

And those few resorts that are a bit slow on the uptake? “A hefty fine would soon sort that,” she laughs. I hope that’s all it takes for them to see the light — or, rather, a lack of it.

sccf.org
fortmyerssanibel.com