For The Love of Sea Turtles by Valerie Lofton
05/02/2017 11:57AM ● Published by Nancy Babin
Gallery: For The Love of Sea Turtles [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Sea turtle facts:
~They are endangered.
~A favorite food is jellyfish.
~They can navigate thousands of miles without a smartphone.
~Mama can lay about 500 eggs in a season.
~The east coast of Florida incubates more females; our gulf coast incubates more males.
~Florida is home to about 90% of the world’s nesting loggerheads.
Every year, two things happen along our Florida beaches: tourists arrive, and sea turtles come back to their nesting grounds. Sea turtle season is from May to October.
Sea turtles arrive after traveling hundreds of miles, being guided by their natural instincts to swim back to the same beaches where they were born. A single female may nest four or more times in one season, leaving each nest with 70-170 eggs. She waits until after dark to begin her long, laborious journey, dragging her body along the sand, instinctively seeking high ground to dig her nest and leave her eggs to incubate. The whole process can take an hour or more.
After about two months, the nest will hatch and during the evening, when the sand cools off, the hatchlings know it’s time to go! They dig their way to the top of the nest, looking for the light on the horizon, which leads them to their water home.
The world has seven species of sea turtles, and four of them nest on Walton County beaches. The Kemps Ridley, the only daytime nester and smallest of them all, is about 60 lbs. The Green and Loggerhead sea turtles are each 350-400 lbs. And lastly, the Leatherback sea turtle can reach up to 2000 lbs.
When you compare Walton County to most beaches along the east coast, you may notice a big difference in numbers of nests. With an average of 60 nests a year along our 27 miles of coastline, the same stretch of beach across from us may see 30,000 nests. This is due to sand temperature. The east coast incubates more females, and we incubate more males. The turtles normally head back to the place they were born to nest, explaining our low nest numbers.
Our sea turtle girls and boys travel in the gulf stream on Sargassum (brown seaweed) until they are a bit larger. After they leave that floating home, they navigate the waters until about 20 years of age when instinctively they know it’s time to mate. That’s when our male sea turtles meander along the east coast, meeting up with pretty sea turtle girls, before they finally swim in the gulf waters again and continue to mate. They are important on both sides of the coast!
With four species of endangered sea turtles needing the dry beaches for nest sites, we have a responsibility as owners of this land to do our best to help them survive. Their greatest enemy is man. We pollute their home, we kill them with commercial fishing and poaching is still very active.
How can you make a difference? Sea turtles need three things that we often overlook: clean, dark and flat.
They need a clean beach to nest on at night. When we leave chairs, towels, boats, toys, umbrellas, tents, sand castles, and holes, we are hindering the work the mama sea turtle needs to do to lay her nest. Her eyesight is very good in the water, but not so good on land. When she bumps into things or falls in holes, it makes it harder for her, and she will turn around and go back to the water and may dump her eggs in the sea, never to hatch.
They need a dark beach free of any manmade obstacles. White lights disorient adult sea turtles as well as hatchlings. This includes flashlights, bon fires, house lights, condo lights, street lights, string lights from events on the beaches, etc. Flash from cameras will blind them and they can fall victim to not finding the water and become an easy target for predators.
They need flat beaches to navigate back to the water easily, so they don’t become trapped in a deep hole or hindered by large sand mountains. We have documented adults and hatchlings trapped in holes. One female sea turtle on our beaches fell in a deep hole and the sand caved in on her. It took 6 people to dig her out. As an air breather, she was lucky to live.
When you go to the beach, remember #cleandarkflat and this will make a big difference for sea turtles on any beach in the world!
South Walton Turtle Watch is a local group that was formed in 1995 by Sharon Maxwell and works under a permit issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). It allows trained volunteers to monitor and excavate sea turtle nests, collect data and work with injured or dead sea turtles. Most counties in Florida and other coastal states have volunteer groups that work with sea turtles during nesting and hatching seasons. Our volunteers commit to six months of being part of the team. The beaches are walked at sunrise and when nests are found, each one is identified by species and measured and marked with stakes, tape and a protective sign. When you see a sea turtle or sea turtle nest, please be respectful and view from a distance. Never touch a sea turtle or shine any lights on them. Never walk through a nest. If you think a sea turtle is in danger or injured, call the local sheriff office and they will contact the local turtle watch group.
For more info, visit www.southwaltonturtlewatch.org, www.conserveturtles.org, and www.carrrefuge.org.
Valerie Lofton is a Florida native and has been volunteering with South Walton Turtle Watch since 2000. Check out her website at www.etsy.com/shop/seaturtlehearts. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram: South Walton Turtle Watch and Sea Turtle Hearts, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to get information about hosting a sea turtle movie.