Take turtle-friendly precautions to help protect nesting sea turtles by Wendy O. Dixon
Among the oldest creatures on earth, sea turtles have remained essentially unchanged for 100 million years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which conducts research on sea turtle behavior, migrations, ecology and threats. Florida has the highest abundance of nesting sea turtles in the continental United States. Loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles commonly nest here. However, the obstacles they face to survive — illegal harvesting, habitat encroachment, light pollution and physical pollution — have made the species’ future fragile.
Turtle nesting season, beginning in May and lasting through October in most Florida counties, is when sea turtles dig nests in the sand and lay eggs. The thrill of seeing baby turtles hatch and struggle in the sand to make it toward the shore is an exciting spectacle for humans to witness.
Sharon Maxwell with South Walton Turtle Watch says local nesting typically begins during the second or third week of May, when the water temperature reaches 81 or 82 degrees. The turtle watch group recorded 47 nests last year and 56 the year before. “Our prime nesters are loggerheads, but we have green turtles also. Some years we are lucky enough to see the Kemp’s Ridley, a small rare turtle,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t see them because they are very small, so their nests can go unobserved.”
Sea turtles are protected by the Marine Turtle Protection Act, and the federal Endangered Species Act lists all five species of sea turtles in Florida as either threatened or endangered. Anyone found harassing a sea turtle or interfering with the nesting process faces criminal and civil penalties.
The FWC asks people not to get too close, shine lights on or use flash photography on the nesting turtles. If you see a nesting sea turtle while on the beach, stay behind her and at such a distance that she cannot see you, and remain quiet.
One of the challenges in this part of Florida, says Maxwell, is that nesting season correlates with tourist season, which can interfere with the females feeling safe enough to come ashore. Catching ghost crabs at night, for example, is popular with tourists, who use flashlights as they walk along the beach. “Consequently, it can interfere with the sea turtles coming in. So our message has been to be respectful of the habitat,” Maxwell says. “If you have to use a flashlight use a red LED light, which deters sea turtles less.”
The turtle watch group hopes to convince people who go out at night that there are many things to enjoy without artificial light. “You can see more stars,” she says, “and even get a glimpse of a sea turtle coming ashore if you are very still. If she sees you, she’ll go back into the water. If you stay behind her, you can observe her.”
To get the best view of sea turtles, visit one of the state-permitted captive sea turtle facilities listed on the FWC website (myfwc.com). Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach and Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach are the two nearest organizations permitted by the FWC to conduct public sea turtle watches, usually held in June and July. To keep track of the latest news on local sea turtles, visit SouthWaltonTurtleWatch.org.
If you find sea turtle hatchlings on the beach, immediately call the FWC Resource Alert number at (888) 404-FWCC.