Summertime may be the hottest time of the year in Southwest Florida, but it’s also the most exciting at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. That’s because it’s sea turtle nesting season! This is the time of year when giant Loggerhead sea turtle mothers leave the Gulf of Mexico to nest on white sandy beaches along the coast. Rookery Bay biologists then watch and wait for the arrival of thousands of baby sea turtle hatchlings!

The Rookery Bay Sea Turtle Team monitors nests along beaches in the southern end of the reserve in Cape Romano and Sea Oat Island (just south of Marco Island) as well as in the Ten Thousand Islands even farther south. Rookery Bay staff, interns and volunteers patrol the beaches every morning from May 1 through the end of August looking for signs of sea turtle nesting. When turtles (predominantly Loggerheads, occasionally Green) come up on the sand to lay their eggs, they leave marks in the sand much like tire tracks. There’s an indent where the nest is buried. The sea turtle team places a cage around the nest to protect it from predators such as racoons and note the location of the nest with GPS.

In approximately 60 days, the nests will begin to hatch and the team waits and watches for baby sea turtles. Once the eggs hatch, the team returns to remove the cages, excavate the nests and count the empty shells to determine hatchling numbers. Sometimes a few straggler baby turtles are still in the nest. Staff will release those little ones onto the beach to make their final crawl into the water. All the nesting and hatchling data is shared with county and state-wide partners to monitor and conserve sea turtle populations in Florida for generations to come.

Despite the extensive impacts of Hurricane Ian in 2022, Collier County documented an increase in sea turtle nests likely because the storm struck at the end of September and the tail-end of nesting season. Researchers patrolling beaches from all over Collier County (including Rookery Bay Research Reserve) counted 1,990 sea turtle nests, a 13% increase over 2021. Most of the nests were Loggerhead sea turtles, while the count included a small number of Green turtles. Marco Island documented its first-ever Green turtle nest! Of the 1,990 total nests counted in the region, 626 nests (31%) were documented on Keewaydin Island — a popular spot within Rookery Bay for boaters, beachgoers and shellers.

Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center

300 Tower Road, Naples, Florida Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 239-530-5972

Special Summer Events at Rookery Bay

Summer Art Exhibit: “100 Years of Collier County’s Waterfront by Paul Arsenault”

Exhibit Opens May 2

May 4, 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Free opening reception with wine and light bites. RSVPs required at events.

Collier County Centennial Celebration

May 5, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Free admission for Collier County residents.

Mother’s Day Concert

May 13, 2-3 p.m.

Students and teachers from Arts Planet will perform on piano, guitar, violin and harp and as vocalists.

Sea turtle nesting season runs from May through October in Southwest Florida. Here are some important tips to remember to help protect these endangered animals:

  • Clean up debris. Remove beach chairs, umbrellas, gazebos and trash.
  • Keep it dark. Turn off beach lights and use turtle-friendly flashlights at night.
  • Keep it flat. Fill holes, flatten sandcastles and eliminate any obstacles for crawling hatchlings.