Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth, and have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years. However, they face an uncertain future. Illegal harvesting, habitat encroachment, and pollution (physical and light) are only some of the issues sea turtles face as the beautiful creatures struggle to survive.
Each year from May – October, there are four species of Florida sea turtles that nest along the beach in South Walton County – Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback and Kemps Ridley. Each season, the sea turtles emerge from the Gulf of Mexico and lay their eggs in the sand.
Approximately 40-60 days later depending on the species, the tiny hatchlings head for to the Gulf of Mexico. Loggerheads, the most common species found in our area, return to their nesting beach every two or more years to lay about four to seven nests. Each nest contains on average 90-120 eggs. In 2015, there were 84 nests; 78 Loggerhead, 1 Kemps Ridley, 2 Leatherback, and 3 Green according to South Walton Turtle Watch.
South Walton Turtle Watch is a local group of dedicated volunteers who monitor our beaches every morning during turtle season. Led by Sharon Maxwell, the group has been monitoring our beaches since 1995. Early each morning, the group looks for turtle tracks and newly dug nests. It is a complicated process once a nest is discovered. First, it must be determined that it is a true nest and not a false crawl. The tracks are measured and it is determined by the size and markings what type of turtle it is. If a nest is too close to the tide line, it must be moved to prevent the drowning of the eggs. Then there is a barricade constructed to mark off and protect the nest. The group continues to monitor each nest until the hatchlings emerge and head into the Gulf of Mexico.
With each attempted nesting, the turtles face an uphill battle. Problems with tents and debris left on the beach, or holes dug in the sand creates confusion for the female attempting to nest. Unnatural lighting is also an issue with nesting turtles and emerging hatchlings. Sea turtles are distracted by the artificial light and are easily led off course.
How can you help nesting sea turtles?
- If you see a sea turtle, it is important to stay out of its way. Do not put your hands on or near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten or disorient the turtle, causing a female to return to the Gulf before finishing her nest.
- Remove beach chairs, tables, water-sport items and any other obstacles at the end of the day. After nesting, be considerate of the hatchlings and make sure that they have a path to the water when it is time for them to hatch.
- Many people like to dig holes in the sand. Please refill these holes so sea turtles and hatchlings do not get caught on their way to nest or to the water.
- Keep waterways clean by properly throwing away any trash. Debris that blows into or is drawn into the water by the tides causes potential hazards for marine life. Some of the plastics may be mistaken for jellyfish, which some sea turtles eat. Other items may entangle animals if they swim through any holes in the debris or get items wrapped around flippers, tails or wings. Practice conservation efforts by cleaning up the beach or a waterway any time you visit—all wildlife will benefit from this service.
What do you do if you see hatchlings on the beach or disoriented hatchlings heading away from the beach?
If you come across a hatchling that is wandering in a road, parking lot; or in a direction other than the water call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Resource Alert numbers at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC from your cell phone.
Sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act, and only those with special permits are allowed to touch the nests, turtles, or hatchlings. There is a $2,500.00 reward for information leading to the conviction of violators. To report a violation, contact a State, Federal, or local law enforcement officer. It is illegal to harm, harass or kill any sea turtles, their eggs, or hatchlings. If you find hatchlings wandering in a road, parking lot, or in a direction other than toward the water, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at (888) 404-FWCC or *FWC from your mobile phone.
For more information about our local sea turtles visit: www.seaturtlewatch.com, or become a fan of Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles at facebook.com/FriendsOfSouthWaltonSeaTurtles.