Gopher Tortoises “Puttin on the Ritz” in Naples, Florida

Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

While one half of the Turtle Journal team battles the “Cold Full Moon” of December in the Great White North, the other half explores wildlife along the sunny Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida.  While one half ducks icy rain that has cut electrical power for a million residents of frozen New England, the other snaps pictures of golden sunsets on tropical beaches.  A perfect illustration of the inherent unfairness of life!  And a demonstration of the unselfish dedication of the Turtle Journal team to venture anywhere, even to wildnerness of sunny Florida in winter, to obtain exciting material for its readers.  You go, Sue!

Ritz Carlton Hotel, Naples, Florida

The team’s favorite hideout in the Naples area is the fabulous Ritz Carlton Hotel off Vanderbilt Beach Road.  Situated on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, any west facing room affords postcard views of the sea across a lush strip of semi-tropical vegetation.  Within that micro-habitat resides a wealth of nature and critters, including a small population of very fortunate gopher tortoises — a threatened and diminishing species in Florida and neighboring Southeast States.

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“Puttin on the Ritz” (Carlton, Naples, Florida)

The Ritz Carlton takes justifiable pride in its grounds and in preserving habitat and conserving species on its property.  Still, when I think of these tortoises building burrows and mounds in one of the goldest of the gold coast properties in southwest Florida, I can’t get the Irving Berlin tune “Puttin on the Ritz” — especially the version as presented by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein — out of my mind. 

Gopher Tortoise between Ritz Carlton Hotel and Beach

Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are fairly large land turtles.  As the name “tortoise” implies, they have elephantine feet in the rear.  The front (gular) scutes of the plastron (bottom shell) project forward under the neck.  They are found in well-drained, sandy uplands at the edge of pine-oak and beach scrub woodlands in the warm, semi-tropical Southeast States.  They need lush greenery as a food source and open sunshine for viable nesting.  The more these elements are present within their habitat, the higher the density of tortoises within that habitat.  These turtles alter their environment through burrowing, mound building and grazing, creating biodiversity that improves the habitat for gopher tortoises.  The symbiotic partnership between the staff of the Ritz Carlton and the tortoises themselves maintains a high quality micro-habitat for these magnificent, yet threatened turtles.  For more information on gopher tortoises, we recommend Turtles of the United States and Canada; Ernst, Lovich & Barbour; Smithsonian Institution Press.  Click here for a gopher tortoise fact sheet.

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Gorpher Tortoise Habitat

As with all turtles, gopher tortoises disappear within the camouflage of their environment.  Especially during the cool season in southwest Florida, tortoises spend lots of time inside their burrows until daily temperatures get warm enough to move them to begin browsing.  Even when rumbling about their habitat, tortoises blend in perfectly with the vegetation that renders them almost invisible.  Whenever we interview locals, including groundskeeping staff and naturalists, they tell us they never see the turtles any more.  The same is true for us when we first arrive; it usually takes a couple of days to reorient our search image so that we can begin to pick them out from their environment.

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

In the coolness of the morning, and during stormy days, tortoises can be found at the entrance to their large, sturdy burrows.  Later in the day as temperatures climb they emerge and begin browsing for food.  When disturbed, tortoises speed back to the safety of their burrows. 

Gopher Tortoise Mound between Ritz Carlton and Gulf Beach

The strip of upland vegetation between the sandy Gulf beach and the developed grounds of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and nearby, high rise condominium complexes is dotted with burrows and mounds, as pictured above, and populated by a nice density of gopher tortoises.  These areas are well posted to avoid disturbance by the deluge of guests who invade these perfect Gulf of Mexico beaches year-around, and the vegetations is thick and wild enough to discourage casual trespassing.

Gopher Tortoise at Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida

For the Turtle Journal team, no trip to Naples would be complete without a visit to these noble turtles.  Somehow, “dumb animals” have discoverd a way to spend their lives in a Garden of Eden on the Gulf of Mexico, maintained at peak condition by a staff of “intelligent humans” who would have to save all year for a chance to spend a weekend in a concrete box overlooking this tortoise paradise.  Gives one pause about how we define “dumb” and “intelligent” creatures.

3 Responses to “Gopher Tortoises “Puttin on the Ritz” in Naples, Florida”

  1. randy sarton says:

    I am the hotel naturalist at the Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort. I enjoyed your article. We also have a good number of freshwater turtles residing in the mangrove-lined lagoons just east of the back beach area where you took many of your photos. On top of that, we also have loggerhead sea turtles in our Gulf waters. In fact, we had three loggerhead nests on our beach directly in front of the hotel this summer. It’s incredible to have all these different species (in separate ecotones) next to each other within just a hundred yards or so. We feel quite lucky.
    Randy Sarton

  2. […] Location, location, location!  The real high rent district for Southwest Florida’s gopher tortoises lies within burrowing distance of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Naples.  For an earlier adventure with these upscale tortoises, see Gopher Tortoises “Puttin on the Ritz” in Naples, Florida. […]

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