If you see someone babysitting a sea turtle nest on Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key, ask him or her if you can quietly sit nearby and watch. Even if you have to sit there all night, believe me, it’s worth it.
One of the most exciting events I’ve ever witnessed on our beautiful Gulf Coast is a nest of baby sea turtles hatching. I’ve been lucky enough to witness it several times while shadowing sea turtle monitors. It’s always an amazing feeling sitting on the warm sand on a dark stretch of beach, listening to the crash of the waves washing over the shoreline. Gazing at the star-studded sky while waiting for a nest to hatch. But best of all is being a part of an ancient ritual that has played out on our beaches during the summertime for millions of years.
Sea turtle nesting season runs from May through the end of October, with the height of the hatching season in August. About 45 to 60 days after a mother sea turtle hauls her heavy body onto the quiet beach under the cloak of night, digs a hole in the sand with her flippers and lays her eggs, her babies are ready to hatch. Every year around the same time mother sea turtles return to the same beaches they were born on to lay her eggs. With luck, one of their babies will someday do the same thing.
During this season, volunteer monitors and agency biologists protect nests and watch for subtle signs that indicate that the turtles are stirring. These are signs imperceptible to most beachgoers.
With their fine-tuned ears pressed to the sand, the monitors can hear the sound of turtles scratching beneath the surface and sand cascading as the turtles leave their eggs and begin their climb to the surface. This can take several days. A lot of human activity nearby can cause turtles to become quiet, perhaps sensing it’s not safe to emerge. Monitors can also see changes in the surface of the sand.
The exact moment the eggs hatch hinges on the right conditions. And, the temperature of the sand determines the sex. Most hatchlings emerge after dusk and before dawn.
Dedicated monitors spend many nights sitting on the beach to make sure humans or predators do not disturb the small, palm-sized sea turtles until the hatchlings literally erupt from what looks like boiling sand. It’s an incredible sight as one then two, then dozens of tiny heads poke through the sand as a vanguard of them emerge, leading the way for the others to the brightest point on the horizon. The others, up to 120, follow as they make a mad scramble to the Gulf of Mexico surf guided by the glow on the horizon created by stars and moon reflecting off the water.
It is the cutest sight you’ve ever seen, but also bittersweet. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. So you’ll find yourself cheering on the little creatures as they tumble in the surf trying out their flippers in the water for the first time and then disappear into the Gulf. I’ve stood there gazing out over the Gulf hoping to see them swimming beyond the surf and marveling at witnessing this ritual that dates back to prehistoric times.
We’re lucky that the Pensacola area beaches are home to four of Florida’s five sea turtle species:
- Kemp’s Ridley
All of them are federally projected because their numbers have been in decline due to habitat loss and light pollution from coastal development. Artificial lights outshine the turtles’ natural beacon and disorient the babies, sending them to certain doom as they head toward roads and developed areas and away from the Gulf. It’s heartbreaking to see these turtles so near the Gulf’s edge propel themselves with their made-for-water flippers in the wrong direction. That’s where the monitors come in. They help steer the turtles to the water and defend them from a gauntlet of predators ready to pick them off.
When the monitors are not around, I’ve seen the sad results. Tiny sea turtle prints dot the beach heading into the sand dunes to parking lots, driveways, roadways and even just meandering for a long distance down the beach, where the hatchlings were lured by the brighter glow of coastal development off in the distance. It’s clear by the tracks in the sand that crabs, raccoons and other predators picked them off. Or they’re found dehydrated or crushed by tires. I’ve helped rescue a few hatchlings trapped alive in crab holes.
Since we all love the beach and all of its critters, there’s an urgent need to learn how we can share it with these amazing creatures and help them thrive so we can continue to enjoy seeing them swim in our waters and ensure they’ll be around for millions of more years.
Here’s how you can you can be good sea turtle stewards:
Watch, don’t touch
If you see a sea turtle mother or hatchling on the beach, watch from a distance, quietly. Bright lights of flashlights and flash photography will scare a mother away and disorient the hatchlings. Red light is thought to be less distracting.
Darken the beach
Turn off outside lights at night on beachfront property during sea turtle nesting season. Or replace outside lighting with sea turtle-friendly lights. Close the blinds and drapes on beach-facing windows at night so the interior lights won’t distract the turtles.
Leave only your footprints
Remove all of your beach supplies from the beach at the end of the day and fill in any holes on the beach. Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach have ordinances prohibiting items left on the beach that may entangle sea turtles. Holes can entrap and harm sea turtles.
Call for help
To report someone disturbing a sea turtle or nest, or if you see a sea turtle or hatchling that appears to be sick, injured, in distress or dead, please call the local authorities and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 24-hour hotline at 888-404-FWCC or *FWC or #FWC from your mobile phone.