Every spring coastal organizations and volunteers gather to begin a season of early morning beach walks and overnight sandy campouts. It may sound like they are on vacation; some may be, but they are guarding a millennials old migratory habit of nesting sea turtles. Rebecca Domangue, PhD, Research Coordinator at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and GOMA partner, shares important information for the Florida Panhandle.
Just like the tourists that flock to our beaches during the summer, sea turtles will come to St. George and surrounding islands each summer to nest. Franklin County supports the highest concentration of nesting sea turtles in the Florida Panhandle, with several species nesting on Dog Island, St. George Island, Little St. George Island, St. Vincent Island, and even the occasional nest on Carrabelle Beach. The most common species of nesting turtle is the loggerhead, Caretta caretta, but green turtles, Chelonia mydas, and even the rare leatherback Dermochelys coriacea have visited our beaches. All species of sea turtles are considered threatened or endangered and protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Turtle Protection Act.
Each female turtle comes back to the beach they were born on to lay her eggs at night. Females nest every two to three years, laying several nests on sandy beaches during the May through October nesting season. After digging a hole and depositing about 80-120 eggs, the females fill in the hole with sand and camouflage the nest before returning to the sea. Did you know sea turtle nesting season goes from May 1 to October 31 along the Gulf Coast? The nesting peaks around 4th of July and after momma turtle lays her eggs; the hatchlings will emerge about 55 days later. After about a two-month incubation period, the turtle hatchlings all dig out of their nest at the same time, a process that can take several days. As a group, they then leave their nest at night and head directly for the ocean. This first trek “imprints” their home beach into the hatchlings so later the females can come back to the same beach to nest as adults.
Only about one in 1,000 hatchling turtles survive to adulthood. Whether you are a resident or a visitor, there are things you can do to help the turtles survive. When you leave the beach each day, please pick up all your chairs, canopies, and other beach gear. Momma turtle can run into these objects and become tangled when looking for the right spot to nest in. Perhaps most importantly, it is imperative to keep the beach as dark as nature intended at night during nesting season. When they emerge from the nest, hatchlings use natural light cues reflected off the ocean by celestial light to guide them to the water. When bright artificial lights are present, instead of crawling towards the water they may instead head towards the brighter man-made lights. They can become suffer from exposure and exhaustion, are vulnerable to predators, and can die. Please be aware of flashlights, lighting outside the house including porch and pool lights, and even lights inside your house. For example, during sea turtle season replace your outdoor lights by the beach with low wattage red or amber LED bulbs and draw your drapes to keep inside lights from glowing outside (for more lighting info please visit: http://myfwc.com/media/418417/SeaTurtle_LightingGuidelines.pdf).
Humans and sea turtles share ocean beaches, and on these narrow strips of sand humans live, recreate, and conduct commerce—and sea turtles nest. While we hope you enjoy your time on our beautiful beaches, we also hope you will help us protect our coastal wildlife and habitats. If you are lucky enough to see a nesting sea turtle on the beach, please stay behind her and at a distance that she cannot see you. Many of us are very excited when we see the rare sight of a sea turtle on the beach. However, in our excitement we may unwittingly disturb these sensitive creatures. Most of our sea turtle visitors will only nest at night. Sea turtles can be easily “spooked” and will leave a beach without laying a nest, even after they have begun the nesting process. If you are on the beach at night and encounter a sea turtle, please keep your distance. It is against the law to touch or disturb nesting sea turtles, hatchlings, or their nests as they are protected by Federal and State laws. While on the beach at night it is best to have a red lens flashlight so you will not disturb turtles, hatchlings, or other wildlife. Be grateful if you are lucky enough to see a momma turtle lay her eggs—it has taken her 30 years or so to be able to come back to the same beach where she was born and lay her eggs!
You may wonder what you can do to help sea turtles if you do not have a house on the beach. Trash and entanglement in the ocean also cause harm to turtles. They may eat plastic pieces, which can cause sickness and death. Reducing your use of, reusing, and recycling your plastic bags will help keep these harmful plastics out of the ocean and away from marine life. Cleaning up litter hundreds and even thousands of miles away may keep trash out of the ocean that sea turtles and other marine animals may ingest.
Here in Franklin County, we are fortunate to live and play close to the water which sometimes brings us in contact with a stranded or deceased marine animal. It is important to know who to call in the case of a stranded or deceased dolphin, manatee, or sea turtle, as timing can often be critical. If you see a stranded or deceased dolphin, manatee, or sea turtle, please immediately report it to the FWC’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 1-888-404-FWCC.
In Florida, strandings are documented by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) staff biologists and by a network of permitted participants located around the state. Stranding data is recorded and live strandings are rescued and transported to properly permitted rehabilitation facilities for medical care such as Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City. Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) holds a sea turtle stranding permit and will help with the animal, but it is important to call the FWC hotline first to start the chain of command.
When you call, please be prepared to answer the following questions:
- What is the exact location of the animal? Nearest street address and/or GPS location are most helpful (available under the compass app or google maps app of smart phones).
- Is the animal alive or dead?
- What is the approximate size of the animal?
- If deceased, is the animal marked with spray paint? (This may indicate that it has been previously documented.)
- What is the location of the closest access point to the animal?
If the animal is alive, please be prepared to stay with it until help arrives. Thank you for being a good neighbor to our aquatic residents. In Florida, if you see a dolphin, turtle, or manatee in need of help, please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 1-888-404-3922.
There are organizations in each U.S. Gulf State that can address a sick or injured marine animal. Use this NOAA Fisheries web page http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pr/health/report.htm to find a number for an organization that can help nearest you.
Contributed by Rebecca Domangue, PhD, Research Coordinator at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. You can learn more about their programs on the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve website.