February 19, 2018

Southwest Florida’s Sea Turtles and Tropical Storm Debby

The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away.

Southwest Florida Barrier islands

Keewaydin Island, Florida – Pre-Tropical Storm Debby

Tropical Storm Debby gave us some much-needed rain and a break in the relentless summer sun, but here in Collier County in southwest Florida, she took half our beach, most of our sea turtle nests and destroyed nests and critical habitat for many of our endangered shorebirds.

Yes, it could have been worse; we were spared the floods and high winds, bar a few micro-cells, but the beach!

There was no beach in Naples for several days. I tweeted that waves were “literally in the sea oats,” after a somewhat exciting evening beach visit. We perched on a Hobie cat, normally way above the water line, eating pizza, squealing a bit as we lifted our feet up from the highest waves.

But it was a visit to Keewaydin Island yesterday that shocked me the most. This eight mile long barrier island is outright one of the best things about Collier County. Mostly owned by the state, bar a few mega-mansions at the north end and holiday homes scattered throughout, it’s largely untouched and a reminder of just how glorious this place must have been way back when.

It’s always a rare gift to be one of just a handful of visitors with miles of clean white sand and warm easy Gulf swimming waters. Keewaydin is also critical nesting habitat for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Which, I remind you, has no real estate options – they need safe beaches to nest.

Barrier Island Florida, sea level rise

After the storm…

After several days of persistent, strong, southwesterly winds, higher tides and relentless waves and surf, biologists estimate that 80-90% of a so-far great nesting season, was wiped out. Leaving just the twisted wreckage of their valiant attempts at protection.

A final tally has not been reached but specialists with a combined half century of experience in southwest Florida say “they’ve never seen anything like it.”

On Keewaydin, most of the 200 or so nests were gone, along with maybe 2 feet of sand.

Arriving at the island, I gulped. What had been miles of healthy dune habitat and white sand just last week was twisted mass of exposed tree roots, channels and pools and salt burned dune vegetation.

Keewaydin island

Twisted cages up and down the beach; all that remain of what had been a great nesting season

A two-foot high scarp showed how the high waves had cut into the existing protective dune.

The engineers will remind us that the beach comes and goes, the sand’ll all be offshore; and yes, a visible sand bar offshore will slowly migrate landward and the beach may well be back.

But it’s a reminder of just how vulnerable our low lying coast is to a bad storm. Debby, despite wreaking havoc on northwest Florida, was NOT a bad storm here, at least for us. She didn’t even make landfall.

But for our sea turtle nests, Debby was temporary annihilation:

  • 90% of sea turtle nests on Naples beaches
  • 159 of 160 least tern nests on Fort Myers Beach
  • 80-90% of sea turtle nests on Keewaydin Island

This storm was also a reminder that we have failed almost entirely to plan for our coast in a future of rising sea levels. We’re perched on the tip of a giant sand bar here in southwest Florida and have no adaptation plan in place. Not for our stormwater system, our natural resources or our private property.

Debby surprised us. But on sea level rise and climate change, we’ve been warned. Repeatedly. And, at least here, do nothing about it. It just might be that the resilient 200 million-year strong sea turtle may out-survive us. What do you think?