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SAVING SEA TURTLES AT FORT MYERS BEACH FLORIDA

Story and photos by

When Eve Haverfield grew up in Sarnia and Kingsville, Ontario, she had no idea that she'd end up in Lee County, Florida, helping volunteers to save sea turtles.

Do Not Disturb Sea Turtle Nest sign
Do Not Disturb Sea Turtle Nest sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"It all began when I took an early morning stroll along a Sanibel Island beach," she says. "I found this unusual tractor-like marking that came out of the water, shuffled around the sand at its apex, and returned to the water. I was so excited, thinking I had discovered something no one else had ever seen."

Loggerhead history

A week later, Haverfield saw her first loggerhead turtle. She was hooked.

"Just think," she enthuses, "these ancient mariners are like modern-day dinosaurs. Sea turtles have been around, virtually unchanged, for the last 200 million years!"

Marine turtles

Loggerheads (scientific name: Caretta caretta), according to Haverfield, are the most common of the five species of marine turtles in Florida. Other species of sea turtles in Florida are: Green (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata).

"Loggerhead turtles are only the size of your ear when they hatch, but they can grow to 400 pounds (180 kilos) and measure up to 38 inches (nearly a meter) in length."

She explains that the loggerhead sea turtle diet consists of shrimp, jellyfish, crabs, mollusks and marine creatures attached to reefs and rocks.

Endangered species

Sea turtles are listed as endangered and threatened marine species. Loss of nesting habitat and oil spills, like the Transocean/BP Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, put them at risk.

Animals can destroy sea turtle nests. Thousands of marine turtles drown in shrimp trawls and fishing gear.

Green turtle baby hatchling
Green turtle baby hatchling
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Many sea turtle hatchlings never even make it to the ocean. Rather than heading to the horizon, they become disoriented by brighter seaside lights and wander inland, where they are crushed by cars, or die from sun exposure or exhaustion.

Nesting season

Eve Haverfield wanted to help. She began working with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, but continually received requests to care for marine turtles and nests on other Lee County beaches. So, in 1989, she started a private, non-profit company called Turtle Time, dedicated to loggerhead conservation.

"Sea turtle season begins May 1 and ends October 31. Because people always asked me if it was turtle time yet, I decided to make it the name of my company," explains Haverfield.

"Although sea turtles mate in water, females must drag their heavy bodies up on sandy shores to dig nests and lay eggs. Nesting females usually stop coming ashore by the end of August or early September. During the remainder of the season, the eggs hatch."

Sea turtle conservation

During the sea turtle season, Eve Haverfield and her volunteers patrol their respective sections of Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach every morning at dawn. If they discover a nest, they rope it off.

Eve Haverfield stakes out a sea turtle nest.
Eve Haverfield stakes out a sea turtle nest.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"We post a bright yellow sign that notifies people that it's an offence to disturb nests or to take eggs, and that penalties for violating the Marine Turtle Protection Act include 60 days imprisonment and/or a $500 fine."

"In addition, anyone who knowingly violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act may be given a civil penalty of up to $25,000, a criminal penalty of up to $50,000, and up to one year imprisonment."

Protecting hatchlings

Signs also include Eve Haverfield's phone number. "People call me if they find an injured turtle or a disturbed nest. Sometimes we put screens under the sand to protect eggs from raccoons."

The problem with disoriented sea turtle hatchlings occurs less frequently now, thanks to a "Lights Out for Turtles" program implemented by Turtle Time. "We distribute brochures and stickers asking beach-side residents to turn off lights or use amber LEDs from 9 pm to 7 am during the turtle nesting season," says Haverfield. "People are happy to comply with light restrictions once they realize the importance of saving sea turtles."

Tracking loggerheads

One evening, when Eve Haverfield was patrolling a Fort Myers beach for lights, she came across a loggerhead turtle. "It was tagged 16 years earlier on the same day of the month, at the same time of the evening and on the same beach. It gave me goose-bumps!"

"You certainly can't call sea turtles dumb animals when they travel nearly 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) away to feed, and then return years later on the anniversary of the date of their first visit. Scientists still don't know whether sea turtle migration is a celestial, magnetic or chemical mechanism that enables them to detect the same beach."

Eve Haverfield writes phone number on sea turtle nest sign.
Eve Haverfield writes phone number on sea turtle nest sign.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Information about Turtle Time

Eve Haverfield teaches people about turtles at schools, libraries, camps and clubs. Her Turtle Time website provides facts about sea turtles, information on species, strandings, anatomy, biology and conservation, as well as educational videos.

An annual list of sea turtle nests, found between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach at the Lee-Collier border, specifies the number of marked nests, the number of hatched nests and the number of NNE (non-nesting emergences, which occur when sea turtles crawl on the beach, but do not nest).

Volunteer patrols

Haverfield welcomes volunteers to help save sea turtles, even if it's only for a short time while they're on vacation. She is especially pleased to work with fellow Canadians.

"Volunteers can patrol beaches at night, looking for lights from buildings and streets, or in the morning, when my regular volunteers are on holiday. They can distribute brochures and clear beaches of monofilament lines, plastic bags and debris that can injure turtles," explains Haverfield.

"If volunteers do come across a sea turtle, they should keep a respectful distance and avoid shining lights and camera flashes on her. When a turtle is frequently disturbed, she'll absorb her eggs."

Sea turtle eggs

How long does it take for a loggerhead turtle to dig a nest? According to Haverfield, it takes more than one hour for the turtle to remove the sand with her rear flippers. (Most loggerheads nest every other year or every third year.)

Each female loggerhead deposits about 100 soft, pliable eggs into her nest. The eggs are each the size of a ping pong ball. Before returning to the Gulf of Mexico, the sea turtle uses her flippers to bury her eggs with sand.

Hatchling release

In spite of all precautions, not all hatchlings escape from their nest. The incubation period for sea turtles is about two months long. Hatching takes about three days.

Beach access sign with information about sea turtle protection
Beach access sign with information about sea turtle protection
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sea turtle nests are about 18 to 22 inches (46 to 56 centimeters) deep. The baby turtles don't crawl up through the sand. They thrash at it until it filters down, building the floor up like an elevator, so they can climb out.

"After three days, we dig up the contents of the nest and invariably find a couple sea turtle babies that are trapped," says Eve Haverfield. "We release them at night near the nest, so they can orient themselves toward the horizon, just as if they had emerged naturally."

"Anyone wanting to participate in a hatchling release can call or e-mail me," she says. "Unfortunately, we cannot schedule sea turtles hatching. It all depends on Mother Nature."


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Turtle Time: www.turtletime.org

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau: www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com

Visit Florida: www.VisitFlorida.com

More things to see & do in The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel area:

Mound Key Archeological State Park Florida

Ding Darling Canoe Trips - Sanibel Island

Captiva Cruises to Cabbage Key for Cheeseburgers