The Turtles are Coming!

I’d always thought of sea turtles as exotic creatures from distant lands… Cozumel, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Australia. Little did I know in moving to South Florida, we’d find ourselves smack in the midst of prime turtle real estate. They’re part of the culture here.

mural on Lady Delray intercoastal cruise boat
Up and down the coast of Florida, every year from March through October, thousands of female sea turtles haul themselves from the sea, heave their bodies across the sand in the dark of night to dig nests and deposit clutches of eggs before dragging themselves back to sea. It’s a ritual ongoing for millions of years, long before we humans were here. And we’re in the thick of it now…

Just last week on an evening walk, we excitedly spotted at least 12 new nests in a short stretch of beach. These are marked by local conservation groups who scour the coastline each morning, searching for telltale tracks in the sand. When a fresh nest is spotted, they stake out its perimeter with fluorescent tape and/or a “Do Not Disturb” sign, depending on the beach and the organization monitoring it. Here are some shots of the nests we saw last week… (you can click for a larger slideshow)

You can see in one of the images above how close some of these nests are to private homes. In fact large stretches of coastline have been developed for private homes (i.e. mansions), country clubs, condo complexes, etc. and all of these emit light, which is a real problem for the turtles, especially the hatchlings who rely upon moonlight glinting on the water to direct them which way to go.

But thanks to the efforts of dedicated scientists who’ve been studying the effects of encroaching development, alot has been done to minimize the effects, especially during nesting season. The city of Boca Raton (just south of us) was one of the first municipalities to institute a lighting ordinance in 1986. Further studies, like the one done by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) which is also in Boca, allowed more improvements. See the graph below which shows the effects of turning off overhead streetlights on A1A (the two lane road that parallels the coast) and instead, lighting with LEDs embedded in the roadway. It’s amazing just how effective this switch was.

This is the type of work being done by incredible organizations dedicated to sea turtle conservation, rescue and rehabilitation. Because of their endangered status, sea turtles are protected by local, state, and federal laws. And you can be prosecuted for interfering with a nesting turtle or nest. Here in Palm Beach County, there are three organizations licensed by the state of Florida to offer night-time guided turtle walks:

Help Protect Endangered Sea Turtles

There are primarily three kinds of turtles that nest on our beaches: Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherbacks.

leatherback turtle
photo courtesy Marco Farouk Basir
The leatherback is the largest of the sea turtle species, and is also the largest reptile alive today. They weigh an average of 600-1500 pounds and are approximately 6 feet long, but can grow as long as 9 feet and weigh in at 2000 pounds (that’s only slightly less than a Toyota Yaris!) They have a soft leather shell that allows for diving in colder, deeper waters. They undergo long migrations and feed mostly on jellyfish. Status is Endangered.

florida sea turtles
photo courtesy NOAA
Green turtles are named for their green body fat. Their meat and eggs made them historically popular with hunters and has lead to a worldwide decline in green turtle populations. They are the largest of the hard-shelled turtles. Adults average a little less than a meter in length (about 3 feet) and can weigh 300-400 pounds. They have a beautiful smooth, oval-shaped carapace that has shades of black, brown, green, and yellow running through it. As adults they are herbivores, feeding on algae and seagrasses, though they enjoy an occasional jellyfish. Status is Endangered.

florida sea turtles
photo courtesy Brian Gratwicke
The loggerhead sea turtle is the most common sea turtle in Florida. They are considered Threatened in our area, but populations in other parts of the world are Endangered. This turtle gets its name from the size of its huge head. Adult loggerheads weigh an average of 250-300 pounds. They have a shield-shaped shell that is rough and reddish-brown in color, and they grow to a little less than a meter in length (about 3 feet). These turtles feast on whelks, conch, crabs, and anything else they can crush with their powerful jaws.

Palm Beach County, where we live, is part of 5 contiguous Florida counties considered the most important loggerhead nursery area in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2016 there were just over 104,000 loggerhead nests in Florida. 94,000 of them were in this 5-county zone, and almost 34,000 (the highest of any county) were in PBC. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s a breakdown of the nests monitored by Gumbo Limbo on Boca Raton beaches (approx 4 miles long) this year and last:

Nests (so far) 2017 Total Nests 2016
loggerheads – 361 loggerheads – 729
green turtles – 39 green turtles – 38
leatherbacks – 5 leatherbacks – 18

We’re attending a night walk tonight with Gumbo Limbo and have our fingers crossed that we may encounter a nesting turtle. We’ve been instructed to wear dark clothing and leave cell phones behind because any light at all can disturb a turtle in the process of nesting, resulting in what’s called a “false crawl,” where the turtle returns to the ocean without laying her eggs.

Wish us luck!

More Info:

Sea Turtle Conservancy – resources in support of research and conservation efforts in the sea turtle community, including a centralized database for organizations to manage, organize and share their data

SeaTurtle.org – the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation group, founded in 1959 by world-renowned sea turtle expert Dr. Archie Carr to save sea turtles from eminent extinction through rigorous science-based conservation.

Helping Sea Turtles – Funded by a portion of revenues from Florida’s Sea Turtle Specialty License Plate, the Sea Turtle Grants Program distributes funds each year to support sea turtle research, conservation and education programs that benefit Florida sea turtles.

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission – FWC helps to protect and conserve marine turtles and their habitat through the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and the Division of Law Enforcement.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks! Me too. Sadly we did not see a momma turtle nesting last night. Waited till midnight, but our scout said the ones he saw all did false crawls, coming up out of the water, but then turning around and quickly heading back. We joked that they were probably waiting for us to leave, and as soon as they heard the car doors slam, hauled themselves onto the beach and got busy! 😉

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