In an age-old rite of nature, female sea turtles crawl out of the ocean at night along Florida’s beaches and lay their eggs in holes they dig by themselves with their flippers, then methodically return to the ocean.
A wonderful way to witness sea turtle nesting is on a beach walk sanctioned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The turtle walks may include a small fee or donation and are held during the height of nesting in June and July.
The Sebastian Inlet State Park turtle walks are in their 39th year in north Indian River County. The park’s Friends group sponsors the walks that require a $10 donation per person. The walk is led by a park ranger with up to 20 people each night. Reservations can be made at www.fsispturtlewalk.org
The turtle walk starts at the Sebastian Fishing Museum inside the Indian River County entrance to the state park just south of the Sebastian Inlet Bridge off State Road A1A. The program begins with a sea turtle PowerPoint presentation at 9 p.m. Scouts go out on the beach to locate a nesting sea turtle during the presentation.
If a sea turtle is found then, the group will go to that location. If not, the group may walk up to 3 miles on the beach and the program could last to 1 a.m. as the ranger leads a search for a nesting sea turtle.
Sea turtles have nested in the dark since the beginning of their species, and it needs to stay that way. It’s important not to interrupt, distract or frighten away the turtles. To this end, lighting ordinances have been approved throughout Florida to keep lights low and directly away from the beaches. Also, there are laws against harassing sea turtles.
Listen at all times to the park ranger and you and the nesting sea turtle can happily coexist. Flashlights, smartphones and camera flashes cannot be used because the lights distract and can deter the sea turtles. The only photography allowed must be without a lighted screen. Participants must listen to the ranger in terms of staying an appropriate distance from a sea turtle.
“Keeping Florida’s beaches dark and uncluttered at night can help protect sea turtles that return to nest on our beaches,” said Dr. Robbin Trindell, who heads the FWC sea turtle management program.
“Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth and have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years,” the FWC said on its website.
The Friends group’s handout said “there is no relationship between sea turtle nesting activity and the phase of the moon, the weather, or the tides. All scheduled turtle walk nights have the same odds of the group seeing a sea turtle nesting.”
Sea turtles are seen on about 75 percent of the Sebastian Inlet turtle walks. Sea turtles will nest in the rain, so raingear is useful, but no umbrellas are allowed. If there is lightning or heavy rain, the walk will be canceled, but only a handful of walks have been canceled in the past four decades.
The turtle walks are Friday through Tuesday. The minimum age is 7 years old, and no refunds are given. Wear comfortable shoes or sneakers and “definitely bring insect repellent,” the Friends group said.
In 2017, 86 percent of the Sebastian Inlet turtle walks encountered a loggerhead sea turtle. That number was 95 percent in 2016 when the 3-mile stretch of park beach had 976 loggerhead, 50 green and five leatherback turtle nests.
The Sebastian Inlet park location is important to many conservationists because it is in the heart of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. The FWC reports, “On Florida’s east coast, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, named after the pioneering researcher whose work first called attention to the plight of the sea turtles, serves as a nursery for approximately one quarter of all loggerhead turtle nests in the Western Hemisphere.”
“For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind,” said Carr, who died in 1987, in hopes the sea turtle never will go extinct.
The 248-acre refuge stretches across 21 miles between Melbourne Beach and Wabasso Beach along Florida's East Coast. The refuge was established in 1991 and was named after the late Archie Carr Jr. in honor of his devoted contribution to sea turtle conservation. The Barrier Island Management and Ecosystem Center near Melbourne Beach also holds turtle walks in the national refuge.
The state’s Visit Florida reports that more than 100,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles nest on Florida’s beaches in the summer. Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf beaches comprise almost 90 percent of all sea turtles that nest in the entire United States. Locally, the Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches are among the most vital to the loggerhead’s survival.
“The contiguous beaches of Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties are the most important loggerhead nursery areas in the Western Hemisphere, attracting more than 15,000 female loggerheads during May through August,” the FWC said in “Sea Turtles: Nomads of the Deep.”
“Sea turtles are threatened in many ways, such as encroachment of coastal development on their nesting beaches, encounters with pollutants and marine debris, accidental drownings in fishing gear, and international trade in turtle meat and products,” the FWC said.
Sea turtles range in size from the 75-to-100-pound Kemp's ridley to the 1,300 pound, 8-foot-long leatherback. The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle found in Florida. It has a reddish-brown shell and is named for its large head. Adult loggerheads can weigh between 200 and 350 pounds and reach 3 feet in length. Loggerheads typically nest in Florida from April to September.
A female sea turtle’s time on land lasts from a half-hour to an hour and sometimes longer to lay 80 to 120 soft-shelled eggs and bury them in the sand. The females will nest every two to three years. In a year they do nest, they lay two to five nests on sandy beaches in intervals that are only a few weeks apart.
Early in the morning, municipal, park, state staff and volunteers may mark the nests with “Do Not Disturb” yellow signs and yellow caution tape, but not always. So be on the lookout for unmarked nests. The tire-like tracks from the sea turtle’s flippers leading up to the nest can indicate the fresh sand and mound of a brand-new nest.
When the mothers bury and leave their clutch of buried eggs under a mound, it seems they turn their backs on their offspring. However, in two months the hatchlings are born at nighttime and head for the ocean as the ancient cycle begins again, with the turtles returning a couple decades later to the same beach through their natural imprinting, a phenomenon that's still marvelous mystery.
Sea turtles are born with the instinct to move toward the brightest direction. On a natural beach, this direction is the light of the open horizon.
The odds are sadly against the hatchling that can fit in the palm of a hand. Only about one in 1,000 turtles survive to adulthood. Hatchlings can die of dehydration if they don't make it to the ocean fast enough. Birds, crabs, and other animals also prey on the young turtles.
“Allow hatchlings to crawl to the water on their own, as the journey from the nest to the water allows them to imprint on their home beach. Picking up the hatchlings may interfere with this process. Scientists believe imprinting helps the hatchlings remember where they came from so they can return and lay their own eggs 20 to 30 years later.” FWC said.
Treasure Coast Turtle Walks
• Sebastian Inlet State Park, Indian River County, 14100 N. State Road A1A. Reservations open May 1, sign up online, call (772) 388-2750 for more information. Tours are Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Monday and Tuesdays, June and July, 9 p.m., $10 donation. Reservations can be made at fsispturtlewalk.org
• Barrier Island Sanctuary, Melbourne Beach, 8385 S. S.R. A1A. To make a reservation, go online to the website or for more information call (321) 723-3556, walks are Monday through Friday, June 1-July 31, 9 p.m., cost is $15 per person, paid in advance, to reserve your space. Visit seaturtlewalks.org
• Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, Wabasso Beach, 9250 S.R. A1A. Choose from different dates in June and July, the walk near the resort begins at 9 p.m., and lasts two to four hours, cost is $35 per person, plus tax. Registration fee is used for Disney sea turtle monitoring, public education and scientific study at the resort. Phone: (772) 234-2000.
• Florida Power & Light, St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, Jensen Beach. FPL Turtle Walks are conducted Friday and Saturday nights in June and July. Walks are limited to 50 people. Reservations are required. Call 1-888-646-6396 (#1).
• Florida Oceanographic Society, 890 N.E. Ocean Blvd. Stuart. Walks are Monday and Wednesday nights from May 30-Aug. 1 (Monday and Thursday nights during July 4th week). 9 p.m. (doors open at 8:50pm for sign-in) $12 per participant (adult or child). Register online at floridaocean.org For information, call 772-225-0505, ext.113.
What to do if you see a sea turtle nesting?
• Stay behind her at a distance and remain quiet.
• Don't use any lights, including flashlights, flash photography and video equipment.
• Don't put your hands on or near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten and disorient her, causing her to return to the ocean before completely covering and camouflaging her nest.
Source: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
What to do if you sea turtle hatchlings?
• Watch from a distance.
• Allow them to crawl to the water on their own.
• Leave them in their nest.
• Keep all lights off.
Source: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission