Safely share the beach with endangered sea turtles this summer

Safely share the beach with endangered sea turtles this summer thumbnail

Shrouded in darkness on a south Florida beach, I crouched about 20 feet behind a loggerhead sea turtle, waiting. I watched silently, my eyes straining in the weak red light from my headlamp as she placed one soft, ping-pong ball-sized egg after another onto a rapidly growing pile. It was a spectacular and perilous sight to witness the propagation of an endangered species.

And perilous might be an understatement: once hatchlings emerge from the sand, only 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 will actually make it to the Gulf Stream where they feast on algae, seaweed, and jellyfish as they grow into adults. Of the millions of eggs laid annually along Florida’s coasts ,, only a few hundred turtles will make it to sexual maturity.

This is because hatchlings who make it to the sea without being picked up by sea birds, or led astray from distracting lights at the beach, may succumb to fishing accidents or boating. All these risks make it vital to give sea turtles the best chance for survival. You can help by protecting nests and hatchlings along North America’s beaches this summer.

When is sea turtle nesting season.

The time of year sea turtles nest, lay eggs and hatch depends on their species and where they are located in North America. Loggerheads and green sea turtle nests are abundant in Florida, but loggerheads also crawl ashore from Alabama to North Carolina. Green turtles can also lay eggs in Hawaii and Texas. Kemp’s ridley sea turtlea critically endangered species–is more likely to be found in Texas and Mexico. Leatherbacks primarily nest in Mexico, Florida, and the Caribbean, while hawksbill sea turtles mainly reproduce in Hawaii and the Caribbean.

For most species, April through October are the best times to nest and hatch. This coincides almost perfectly with prime beach-going seasons. Take the loggerhead, for example: When a female is ready to nest, she slowly heaves her 300-pound body up the beach until she feels dry sand under her chin, sometimes going far beyond the high tide line. She then digs a 2-foot deep hole with her back flippers, lays an average of 120 eggs, refills the hole with sand, and heads back to the water. The whole process might take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on the species, and female turtles will do it every two weeks, for an average total of four to six nests.

But, if a turtle sees you while walking up the beach or digging, she might stop and retreat to safety. This is a problem because if she fails to build a nest more than once, she will abandon her attempt and place her eggs in the ocean. Every nest is vital for their recovery because many sea turtle species are critically endangered. Mary Kay Skoruppa, US Fish and Wildlife Service’s sea turtle coordinator for Texas, speaks specifically about the Kemp’s ridley.

Turn your lights off

While most sea turtles avoid bright lights instinctually, hatchlings can be attracted to artificial lighting, says Amber Kuehn (marine biologist, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Patrol). Baby turtles know that the moon is what lights their way to the sea, so they look out for it when they emerge. They will run towards a bright lantern or porch light if they see one nearby. This can lead to almost certain death.

At a beachfront property, turn the outside lights off at night and use dark-sky-approved fixtures that are downward-facing and shielded on the beach side of the house, fitted with warm-colored bulbs. Interior light shouldn’t be pouring onto the beach, either, explains Kuehn, so consider tinting your windows or using light-blocking curtains or blinds. In many places, including Hilton Head, there are even municipal codes detailing turtle-protection directives.

Clean up your act

It’s equally important to take precautions at the beach during the day. The Kemp’s ridley only builds nests during daylight hours. However, daytime activities can still pose a threat to sea turtles that hatch at night or come ashore.

Holidays and sandcastles can trap turtles and block their passage to and from the water. A hole only a few inches deep can trap a hatchling and likely kill it. Be sure to level the sand before digging or building.

It should be obvious that you don’t leave any trash at the beach, no matter how small. Plastic straws are notorious for the risks they pose to sea turtles, but plastic bags, fishing line, candy wrappers, and really any type of garbage can endanger them as a tangling or choking hazard.

If your dog is going with you to the beach at night, it should be kept on a leash. Dogs can injure or scare away sea turtles from nesting areas.

Be careful when driving on the beach

When driving on the sand in places like Daytona Beach or Texas, such as the coast of Florida or Texas, you need to be extra careful. Keep to the posted speed limits and watch out for turtle tracks, especially early in the morning. “They’re 400-pound reptiles; they leave a mark,” Kuehn jokes. Their flipper prints look like ATV tracks but they start and end in water. She says nests are more difficult to spot. Because of foot traffic and wind, the tracks become less visible over time. Therefore, trained teams often canvass beaches early in the morning for signs that nesting is taking place.

Texas Kemp’s ridley nests at night, but they are easier to spot: After a female has filled in her nest, she will cover her back with camouflaging soil.

What to do if you spot a turtle nesting

If you happen to be near a sea turtle as she makes her way up the beach it is important to not give her reason to abandon her journey. So keep your distance–50 feet is a good rule of thumb for pedestrians; 100 feet for motorized vehicles, according to Skoruppa. Your voice should be lower and you must not block her path, regardless of whether she is heading out of the water or into it.

” Enjoy the moment and consider your blessings,” Skoruppa states. It’s amazing to see .”

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Once you have removed the turtle, mark the nest by placing pieces of driftwood or beach debris in a large area around the nest so that biologists can locate it during patrol. Once the turtle has left, don’t disturb its nest. It’s illegal to harm the eggs or cause damage to them.

Finally, call your local agency to inform them of the nest’s location. Most beaches will have signs with contact information, but if not, a good bet is to ring your state’s wildlife agency or the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

We hope you have an enjoyable, safe trip to the beach this season. But please ensure that the species that depend on it have the same.

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