The early life of a sea turtle is so hazardous that only an estimated one in a thousand reaches maturity. Some don’t even survive their first few hours, when hatchlings make the urgent crawl out of a sandy nest and into the ocean.
That trip was almost fatal last week for nearly 100 sea turtle hatchlings on Sarasota’s Lido Beach. But thanks to the intervention of a city police officer, the hatchlings discovered crawling the wrong direction, toward a nearby hotel, got a second chance at life.
We are grateful for the actions of the officer, Sarasota native Derek Conley, as well as the hotel security officers and tourists who helped him. Their efforts reflect positively on this community's environmental values.
We hope the episode also serves as a reminder that humans form a critical link, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse, in the life and death of endangered sea turtles. Never forget that the actions and choices of our species affect the survival of theirs.
These sea reptiles need dark, natural shores to nest and hatch, the focus of nesting season, May 1to Oct. 31each year.
It is a time when local, state and federal rules aim to protect sea turtles from the side effects of humans, such as light pollution, noise, predation and beach chairs that hamper the creatures’ difficult clamber through the sand. Any of these factors can prevent a nesting turtle from coming ashore to lay eggs, or damage hatchlings’ survival odds.
Artificial light, such as the glare from a street lamp, can be devastating, because turtle hatchlings are drawn to it instead of to the water where they need to be.
Under Sarasota County’s sea turtle protection ordinance, light fixtures near the beach are supposed to be shielded or positioned “so that the point source of light or any reflective surface of the light fixture is no longer visible from the beach.”
The public Lido Beach pavilion, where the rescued turtles hatched one night last week, obeys the ordinance, going dark at night. Street and building lights in the area are shielded. So how did the hatchlings end up so off-course, marching toward pavement instead of the Gulf of Mexico?
That is not completely clear, Keri Ferenc Nelson, the County’s wildlife specialist, indicated. But she suspects the unusual location of the nest, close to the public pavilion and landward of a dune, may have contributed to the disorientation. Since the nest was above the beach, there was less protection from ambient artificial light.
The nest also was near a footpath, which may have further disoriented the hatchlings several of which even crawled through a chain-link fence into the public swimming pool (closed and dark at the time), Nelson said.
Given the darkness and the late hour, it’s lucky that Officer Conley and onlookers at the adjacent hotel noticed the wrong-way hatchlings in time to scoop them up by the dozens and take them to the water. Normally, the law prohibits humans from touching the hatchlings, but in an emergency it is necessary.
Once hatchlings make it into the sea, they are vulnerable to predators. But at least the turtles have a chance there, unlike on land, where they are likely to die under the wheels of a car or succumb to dehydration, exhaustion and predators.
Nelson said records indicate 22 cases of hatchling disorientation have been logged so far this year on Manasota, Casey, Siesta and Lido keys.
But the good news is that the preliminary number of nests is up to nearly 4,000 (the bulk of them on Manasota Key). The more nests, the better the chances that these endangered and threatened species will endure.
Citizens can improve the odds of turtle survival in several ways:
By preserving natural beachfront habitat and insisting on waterfront development practices that are environmentally friendly.
By obeying the turtle protection ordinance. That means being careful with artificial lighting (aiming lamps toward a sidewalk, for example, not the beach). At beach hotels and residences, it means closing drapes at night and clearing obstacles from the sand. It means that fireworks and strong lanterns shouldn’t be used in nesting areas during sea turtle season. For more information, go to myfwc.com/seaturtle on the Web. Thanks to hard work by volunteers and turtle advocates, cooperation‘ and awareness have grown. Officer Conley’s actions will inspire even more, we hope.
Herald Tribune August 15 2013