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Turtle Time on Sanibel and Captiva

Sea Turtles are ancient creatures.

A 2005 fossil find in Queensland, Australia, indicated that sea turtles lived more than 110 million years ago. Even centuries ago, sea turtles roamed our oceans by the millions. In the last 100 years, however, their numbers have been greatly reduced and today all seven species of sea turtles are in danger of global extinction. During the summer months, there are approximately 50,000 sea turtles in Florida, making our state the most important nesting area in the United States.

Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water, coming ashore only to nest. Like salmon, sea turtles will return to the same nesting grounds at which they were born. Nesting season begins in mid April and hatching continues until the end of October. A female can lay several nests during one season and only nests every two or three years. The hard process of nesting takes hours. The mother sea turtle uses her back flippers to dig a hole and deposits 75-130 leathery eggs, each the size of a ping-pong ball. The turtle disguises the nest by flinging sand over it. Once she leaves the nest, she never returns.

After incubating for two months (55-60 days), the hatchlings break out of their shells and thrash about together causing the walls of the nest to collapse and the bottom of the hole to rise. Once near the surface, the hatchlings wait until the sand temperature cools to emerge, thus the reason why most emerge after dark. After they are out of the nest, the baby sea turtles will try to scramble to the water and swim offshore where they will live for several years in seaweed beds drifting along the Gulf Stream.

Few baby sea turtles make it to the water, however, as even the slightest bit of artificial lighting along the beach disorients them. Newborn sea turtles instinctively move in the brightest direction, ideally to follow the light of the moon toward the water. Artificial lights cause them to crawl in the wrong direction. Even a single light bulb left shining on a beachfront patio can confuse the hatchlings, so Sanibel Island has implemented stringent restrictions on beach lighting – or a “dark-skies ordinance” – to help baby sea turtles make their way safely to the sea. Other rules are in place that make it illegal to interfere with sea turtle nesting in any way.

How You Can Help

  • Keep your curtains closed and ensure all outside lights remain off at night throughout sea turtle season from April 15 – November 1.
  • Make sure to remove chairs, umbrellas, toys and other gear from the beach each night and fill in any holes that you’ve dug. These obstacles may cause a “false crawl” where a female turtle returns to the water without laying her eggs. They may also block a hatchling’s route to the water causing it to perish.
  • Please pick up all trash, especially plastic, which sea turtles often mistake for food.
  • Do not use flashlights or take flash photography at night on the beach.
  • Stay clear of marked nesting areas. Honor the leash law and do not allow pets to disturb turtle nests.
  • If you happen to see a sea turtle, keep a respectful distance – at least 150 feet – and watch quietly. It is a rare experience and one to be treasured!
  • On Sanibel and Captiva, more than 100 island residents volunteer each nesting season as part of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Sea Turtle Research and Monitoring Program. The volunteers come out at dawn to check the 18 miles of beach from the Sanibel Lighthouse to the tip of Captiva. Nests are identified and marked for monitoring and protection, and later in the season hatches from those nests are evaluated and recorded. Data collected is designed to improve sea turtle survival rates by ensuring that our beach habitat is suitable for nesting.

Lost and All Alone

  • If you find lost hatchlings, please call the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation at 978-728-3663 and a licensed volunteer will come by to pick up the turtles. In the meantime, place them in a dry container with a little moist sand in the bottom and keep them in a shaded area.
  • If you see a stranded turtle, check to see if there are orange marks painted on its shell. If so, this stranding has already been reported to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s sea turtle program. If this is a new stranding, call their Sea Turtle Coordinator at 978-728-3663, Monday – Friday. On weekends, report the stranding to the Sanibel Police at 239-472-3111.

Turtle Trivia

  • There are seven species of sea turtle: the Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, green, loggerhead, hawksbill, flatback and leatherback.
  • Florida beaches are home to 80% of loggerhead turtles in the U.S.
  • Turtles can migrate tens of thousands of miles, but usually return to lay their eggs on the same beach where they hatched.
  • Sea turtles are long-lived, slow growing animals. It can take 15 – 50 years before a sea turtle is capable of reproducing, depending on the species.
  • Scientists estimate that only 1 in 1,000 sea turtle babies will survive to adulthood.
  • The nest temperature during incubation determines a sea turtle’s sex. Boys like it cool – girls like it hot.
  • Hatchlings weigh less than one ounce and are only two inches long. Adults can grow over 3 feet long and weigh 250 to 400 pounds!
  • July is the busiest month for sea turtles on Sanibel and Captiva. Adult females are still coming ashore to nest and the nests that have been incubating for two months begin to hatch.
  • Sea turtles are one of the few reptiles that live in the marine environment. They breathe air, and can hold their breath for long periods of time.
  • Sea turtles use their strong jaws to crush a diet of crabs, shrimp, mussels and jellyfish. Each species relies on a different diet: greens eat sea grasses; leatherbacks feed on jellyfish and soft-bodied animals; loggerheads eat heavy-shelled animals such as crabs and clams; hawksbills rely on sponges and other invertebrates; and the Kemp’s ridley prefers crab.
  • Sea turtles have no natural predator, but they are threatened by many human-related dangers, including accidental capture and entanglement in fishing gear and the loss of nesting sites due to coastal development.
  • Most critically, ocean pollution – particularly, plastics – is a major threat to the survival of sea turtles. To sea turtles, a plastic grocery bag looks like a tasty jellyfish. As many turtles feed on jellyfish, they often confuse plastic bags with their prey and eat them, resulting in lethal consequences. Worldwide, dead turtles are found with their intestines full of plastic bags. Here in the U.S., more than 1 billion single-use plastic bags are given out every day. Please help do your part in curbing plastic pollution by utilizing reusable bags whenever possible and urging your community to support reusable bag initiatives.

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