(News-Press.com) - Eve Haverfield walks along the north end of Bonita Beach at sunrise, searching for tracks the size of a tractor trailer tire.
"We've had fishermen who reported seeing them, and we had a couple mating offshore that were reported," said Haverfield, director of Turtle Time Inc., a nonprofit organization that monitors sea turtle nesting on several beaches in Lee County. "So they're preparing — they're trying."
Sea turtle nesting starts today and runs through August, although hatchlings can emerge as late as October. Biologists and turtle monitoring groups are hoping for high numbers this year, perhaps 2,000 nests across Lee and Collier counties. Overall, Lee County beaches were home to 680 turtle nests in 2013 with Collier County numbers cresting at 1,075.
"We had a really good year last year, lots of nests and lots of hatchlings," said Maura Kraus, principal environmental specialist for Collier County. "We had a good nesting season the year before, but tropical storms wiped out a lot of the eggs. We went through a 10-year, sharp decline, and two years ago it started coming up again. I sure hope it continues."
Kraus said some nests have survived short-term flooding from summer storms.
"They drained so well that the water didn't stand on the nest," Kraus said. "We had hatchlings from nests that were underwater several times. The quicker the water can drain through the nest, the better chance of survival."
County and state agencies involved with beach renourishment projects must use a certain size of sand to ensure that the nests will drain if flooded.
By law, beach chairs and furniture must be removed daily, and lighting must not be visible at the shoreline. Hatchlings typically emerge at night and follow any light they see, which, naturally, is from the moon or stars.
Loggerheads are the most common sea turtles that nest in Southwest Florida. Adult females return to the beaches they hatched on to deposit the next generations of loggerheads. Some swim from as far away as the west coast of Africa, a popular feeding ground in the Atlantic Ocean.
No nests had been reported in the Naples or Marco Island area as of Wednesday afternoon, Kraus said.
Haverfield and her crew will likely have to relocate nests on the north end of Bonita Beach this year. Relocating a nest takes about an hour and must be done with great care as embryos can detach from the egg shell and die.
The public must remain vigilant in how it treats nests and hatchlings.
"They can respect the nesting process. if they see a turtle at night, give it lots of space and don't use flashlights or cameras," said marine biologist Beth Brost with the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. "They can get spooked and go back into the ocean. Think about the energy it takes to crawl out of the water, up the beach, dig a hole, lay your eggs and then go back out into the water."
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• Appearance: Called loggerhead due to their relatively large heads, adults grow 250 to 400 pounds with a 3-foot long shell. Males have longer tails, which may not be visible with juveniles.
• Habitat: Open ocean except for nesting females, who return to the very beach they were born on to nest. Found in Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico during summer months. Nesting occurs May through October.
• Range: The most common sea turtle in Florida, loggerheads nest throughout much of the Gulf of Mexico region and the east coast. Loggerheads have been documented swimming from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba in 11 days.
• Reproduction: Adult females nest every two to three years, depositing 100 eggs or more into a body-sized cavity the females create by digging with their flipper-like appendages.
Sources: Turtle Time Inc., Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission