Ninety-six tiny sea turtles got a rough start, but finally entered the vast Atlantic Ocean Tuesday evening, embarking on a treacherous journey to the food and shelter of sargassum weed that floats offshore.
Streetlights along Smathers Beach and in parking lots of the nearby Sheraton Hotel and La Brisa Condominiums disoriented the turtles, which headed inland rather than toward the water, said Susan Leser, the nesting beach survey coordinator for Save-A-Turtle.
Volunteers from the nonprofit found the hatchlings in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday and were able to collect 96 survivors. Three hatchlings were found crushed, Leser said.
Save-a-Turtle volunteer Russ Draper kept the turtles in a cool, dark place at his home until the sun went down on Tuesday and the turtles could be released into the ocean.
It was a calm night for a swim, as the 96 hatchlings started their life's journey.
They likely will swim for two straight days until they find a line of sargassum weed that will become their floating home for the first two or three years of their life.
It will be a treacherous start to life, as fewer than one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
City officials have ordered the lights along Smathers Beach be extinguished until Nov. 1 to give the turtles a better chance of survival.
City Manager Jim Scholl on Wednesday said the city typically asks Keys Energy Services to turn off the streetlights for the beginning of nesting season, which starts April 15.
"Somehow, collectively, we just weren't paying attention," Scholl said. "And the volunteers who walk the beach didn't bring it to our attention, but the team from Keys Energy was out there right away once we asked, and the lights are now off."
Leser said that Save-a-Turtle volunteers likely will meet with representatives from the nearby hotel and condos to determine whether their lights can be extinguished.
Save-a-Turtle beach monitors patrol the island's public beaches every morning around dawn looking for nests and other evidence of sea turtles. When a nest is found, it is marked so that beach-cleaning crews can avoid running it over, and then it is protected from predators such as birds and other animals with a wire screen.
The nest that hatched early Tuesday was the first in Key West this season, Leser said. Volunteers are watching one other nest that has another month or so until hatching.
There also has been heavy turtle nesting activity at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, where park employees monitor the nests.
For more information, or to volunteer, see http://www.save-a-turtle.org.