Record Number of Nighttime Sea Turtle Encounters in 2023
SCCF staff had 406 nighttime sea turtle encounters this year on Sanibel as part of the sea turtle program’s nighttime tagging project — almost double the number of encounters documented last year and new record for the island.
From May through July, SCCF’s nighttime tagging team conducts nightly, sunset-to-sunrise beach patrols in search of nesting sea turtles. Of the 406 females encountered this year, 222 were unique individuals, compared to 125 in 2022. This year also broke the previous record for number of unique individuals encountered, which was set in 2020 when the team saw 188 unique individuals.
“During night patrols, we check to see if sea turtles have tags. If they don’t, we apply a flipper tag and a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag to help us track an individual’s nesting and movement patterns over time,” said SCCF Sea Turtle Biologist Savannah Weber. “We also measure the carapace (or the back of the shell) of each turtle to obtain useful data such as growth rates and average size of reproductive maturity.”
The largest turtle encountered on the island this year was Conch, with a carapace of 3.5 feet long. Conch was originally tagged on Sanibel in 2016 and has since nested in 2018, 2019, and 2021. The smallest encountered turtle was an untagged turtle named Little Mix — measuring in at 2.3 feet, she was about 1.5 times smaller than Conch.
Beaches all over Florida, from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf coast, are seeing record-breaking numbers of sea turtles and nests.
“We’re so excited to be joining this trend, as we’re breaking records here on Sanibel too — both in turtle encounters by the night team and total nests laid on the island,” Weber said.
As of Aug. 8, 1,197 sea turtle nests have been laid across Sanibel and Captiva Islands — including 18 green sea turtle nests — and 19,501 hatchlings have emerged.
SCCF also gets the pleasure of “naming” newly tagged sea turtles, and this year’s theme was female musicians. The 121 turtles tagged for the first time this year received nicknames such as Fergie, Shakira, Baby Spice (a particularly small loggerhead), and Tina Turner.
“Out of the 222 unique individuals, we saw 89 turtles more than once. Loggerheads we saw the most included new turtle Pat Benatar, who we observed false crawling multiple times and nesting twice. Paper Fig was sighted seven times this season — she has nested on Sanibel every few years since 2016,” Weber said. “Green sea turtle Millie was seen five times, and each time we saw her, she was nesting!”
This year, staff observed the nesting female for approximately 25% of the total nests laid from May through July. This helps the turtle team identify trends among individuals, such as where an individual chooses to lay a nest, how often they nest, and the hatch success of that individual’s nests.
Since its start in 2016, SCCF’s nighttime tagging project has documented 1,056 unique sea turtles.