May 15, 2019

ISLAMORADA — Trails tell the tale of the loggerhead sea turtles’ arrival in the Florida Keys.

“They’re here. We believe we have a nest now,” Sandi Williams, a longtime Save-A-Turtle beach monitor, said Monday. “It’s always pretty exciting.”

No one this year has reported a sighting of a female loggerhead, weighing from 200 to 350 pounds, lumbering from the Atlantic Ocean near Sea Oats Beach, but scalloped trails left behind in the sand leave no doubt.

FWC file photo
Loggerhead turtles commonly nest along Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada. This hatchling heads to the sea.

On May 8 and 9, monitors with Save-A-Turtle and the village of Islamorada found two “false crawls,” possibly made by the same mother turtle seeking a place to dig a nest during the night.

Bright lights from nearby residences may have discouraged her, or the waterfront beach eroded by Hurricane Irma may not have been suitable.

“For whatever reason, she hasn’t found the place she wants to be yet,” Williams said.

The weekend discovery of an apparent nest dug along the residential Sunset Beach was a more encouraging sign.

More than a dozen Lower Matecumbe Key homeowners in the known nesting areas will receive notices that lights observed May 8 and 9 “were in violation on the Islamorada turtle-nesting code,” Environmental Resources Manager Pete Frezza said.

Initial mailings are advisory but continued non-compliance could result in fines, he said.

“Bright lights left on by homeowners can be a deterrent for the adult turtles, which results in the ‘false crawl’ when the turtles turn around and leave,” Frezza said.

An even more dire concern happens about 60 days after a mother turtle deposits dozens of her eggs. Hatchlings instinctively head toward bright light, and too often are confused by artificial lights rather than the moon over the ocean. With U.S. 1 just yards away, the mistake can be deadly.

“When hatchlings get misdirected, the best-case scenario is that they lose energy and time,” Williams said. “The worst case is that they go onto the highway and are killed.”

Turtle-nesting season officially runs from April 15 to Oct. 31, although the season has yet to peak.

FWC file photo
Signs of nesting loggerhead sea turtles were spotted this week along the shore of Lower Matecumbe Key. Residents have been asked to keep lights dark so the hatchlings don’t get lost on their return to the ocean. See story on page 6A.

“Almost all the sea turtles we get are loggerheads, but all the species are endangered or threatened,” Williams said. “People can do their part by making sure house lights can’t been seen from the water, bringing yard furniture closer to the house and picking up any litter they find.”

Last year, Lower Matecumbe had one of its busiest seasons with 35 nests dug by turtles who return to the beaches where they were born. Often, a successful year is followed by a slower nesting season.

“Females return to their nesting beach every two or more years, an average of 2.7 years, to lay an average of 4.1 clutches, one about every 14 days,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports. Each nest may have from 60 to more than 100 eggs.

The main area for the state’s nesting turtles lies in the five-county area from Brevard to Palm Beach, but the Dry Tortugas and the Marquesas also can attract a large number of nests.

The FWC logged 523 loggerhead nests and 71 green turtle nests in 2018.

Islamorada’s turtle nesting code can be found on the village website at www.islamorada.fl.us.

kwadlow@keysnews.com