Cellphones present another obstacle for nesting sea turtles
TAMPA — Unlike the A-listers sashaying down the red carpet at the Oscars last weekend, a sea turtle full of eggs needs a little privacy from the cellphone camera flashes of amateur paparazzi.
Sea turtle nesting season began Tuesday. Until the end of October, the reptiles lumbering ashore in the night along Florida’s beaches are intent on digging holes and laying eggs and need all the help they can get.
Typically, beachgoers who come across them are tempted to pull out a cellphone and record the wondrous event for posterity, and whatever social media is most handy at the time.
Flashes, however, can scare and confuse the beasts and send them back into the water, disrupting the nesting process. That’s not good, since the species — loggerheads, Kemp’s ridley, green turtles and leatherbacks — that use the state’s beaches to nest all are either endangered or threatened.
Add to that the plight of the green sea turtle along the Pasco and Pinellas coastline over the past month.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has recovered more than 200 dead and sick or distressed juvenile green sea turtles since the beginning of February. That’s more than the total number of dead turtles recovered all of last year.
The cause: undetermined. It may be the cold or a virus called fibropapillomas, which causes the growth of cauliflower-shaped tumors on a turtle’s soft tissue and eyes.
So nesting season is an important time of year for sea turtles, and that’s why state wildlife biologists are asking tourists and local beach bums alike to fight the temptation to flash lights at sea turtles at night.
“It’s great that people are enjoying Florida’s beaches and are enthusiastic about our sea turtles,” Robbin Trindell, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s sea turtle management program, says in an announcement on nesting season. “However, most visitors to the beach don’t realize that any light on the beach at night poses a threat to these threatened and endangered animals.
“A nesting female may become frightened or disoriented by lights or a flash photo and return to the ocean without laying eggs,” she said. “Lights on the beach at night also could interfere with adult or hatchling sea turtles trying to find the ocean after nesting or hatching.”
Though juvenile green sea turtles are being hit hard in this part of the state, wildlife officials said that in 2015 a record number of green turtle nests were documented in Florida, with 27,975 nests found on 26 beaches monitored by state marine biologists.
That left some Gulf Coast beaches pocked with wooden stakes and caution ribbon marking nests buried in the sand. Spotting a turtle laboring to get ashore can be a common summer sight, particularly south of Pinellas County, in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.
That’s where the state is cautioning people who come across the creatures.
“It’s a problem not only when they take flash photos, which scares the turtles back into the water, but the phones also have flashlights that people use when they walk on the beach at night,” said Joe Widlansky, a sea turtle biologist with the nonprofit Sea Turtle Trackers, which monitors nesting on St. Pete Beach and Shell Key.
“They use the flashlights so they can see where they are going, and that can totally scare a turtle back into the water,” he said. “I’ve seen people shine their flashlights right on the turtles while they’re nesting.
“Cellphones are becoming a pretty big issue out there on the beach,” he said. “It really does have an effect.”
Loggerheads and green sea turtles mainly nest along the Gulf Coast, he said, and occasionally the Kemp’s ridley turtles also nest here, though they are far less common. Leatherbacks nest primarily along the Atlantic coast of Florida, he said.
The first nest of the season, dug by a leatherback, was spotted and marked in Juno Beach, he said. They typically are the first to nest.
The others should be nesting along the Gulf Coast, he said, in about a month’s time.
♦Remove chairs, canopies, boats and other items from the beach at night. They tend to block the movement of turtles and hatchlings.
♦Turn off or shield lights along the beach to prevent nesting females or hatchlings from getting confused and going toward lights on land instead of into the water, where they belong.
♦Avoid using lights on the beach at night. If you must have light, use a red LED flashlight. Adjust cellphone screens to dark mode and don’t take flash photos.
♦Fill in holes in the sand at the end of the day so nesting sea turtles and hatchlings don’t fall in and get stuck there at night.
♦Properly dispose of fishing line so it won’t entangle sea turtles and other animals.
♦It is illegal to harm, harass or take sea turtles, their eggs or hatchlings or get too close to a nesting female.
♦Report sick, injured, entangled or dead sea turtles to the state wildlife commission’s Wildlife Alert Hotline, (888) 404-3922.