It’s an amazing time of year again on the shorelines of Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS). Sea turtle hatchling season is in full swing all over Florida, where about 90 percent of sea turtle nesting in the U.S. takes place.
Whether you are a Pensacola Bay Area resident or are simply dropping in for vacation, only the luckiest of beachgoers get to experience watching dozens of baby sea turtles emerge from their nest and make their way to the shore. It is truly one of the most magical things you’ll ever see, and it’s all about timing. I saw my first sea turtle nest hatch when I was 11 years old, and the phenomenon left me hooked for life. Since then, I have had the privilege of aiding park rangers in this surreal and prehistoric act at least half a dozen times along Pensacola Beach. And yet, it never gets old! It is truly such a fascinating miracle to watch.
Did you know that the sea turtles that hatch along Pensacola Beach tend to be mostly males? Why, you may ask? The gender of all sea turtle hatchlings depends on the temperature of the sand during the 60-day incubation period. The warmer the sand, the more females the nest will produce. Our beaches produce mostly male turtles. Only female sea turtles come ashore. It can take decades for them to reach reproductive maturity, but once they do, they usually return to the same area where they were born to lay their eggs. So it's a big deal when researchers and park rangers find turtle nests along Pensacola Beach, since we don’t produce many females. And it's an even bigger deal if you're lucky enough to get to witness the clutch hatching.
Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are in U.S. waters. Five species nest on U.S. beaches and four species can nest on Northwest Florida beaches. All sea turtles are either threatened or endangered. Florida is one of the largest nesting grounds in the world for the Loggerhead sea turtle. Loggerheads are the most common sea turtle along GINS and Pensacola Beach. There are three other sea turtles that also nest on our beaches: the Green, the Leatherback and the Kemp's Ridley, the rarest of all sea turtle species. The Kemp's Ridley nests during the day and many times the hatchlings emerge during daylight hours.
Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as endangered, and some, like the Kemp’s Ridley, are critically endangered. Baby sea turtles face many obstacles when first leaving their nests — such as raccoons, crabs, birds and fish. Sea turtle hatchlings use the light of the moon to guide themselves to the water, but can often get distracted by bright lights from beach homes, condos and businesses facing the beach. That’s why it’s so important to always be respectful and considerate of nesting sea turtles and hatchlings to ensure that future generations get to enjoy them too. Here are some helpful tips:
GO DARK - When walking the beach at night during turtle season, remember to use a red flashlight. Sea turtles and hatchlings are less likely to be attracted and disoriented by red lighting.
TURTLE ETIQUETTE - Don’t touch or harass a nesting sea turtle or baby hatchlings as they leave their nest. Watch quietly from a distance and never shine lights or use flash photography, which could disorient them.
FILL IT IN and KNOCK IT DOWN - Fill in large holes, knock down sand castles and other obstacles to leave the beach flat for nesting sea turtles.
LEAVE NO TRACE BEHIND – Remove all tents, canopies, furniture, toys and other obstacles from the beach every night.
If you see a sea turtle or hatchling that is sick, injured, in distress or deceased, please call the local authorities and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 24-hour hotline at 888-404-3922.
Katie King is a self-proclaimed beach bum who moved from Atlanta to Pensacola in late 2002 where she spent the next 13 years working as a photojournalist and editor for the Pensacola News Journal, covering all aspects of Pensacola life. Katie's photographs have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and have made the Newseum’s Top Ten Front Pages exhibit. In 2015, Katie transitioned from journalism to public relations and began work at EW Bullock Associates.
Her love for Pensacola only deepened after settling into her rustic, 93-year-old home in East Hill that she shares with photojournalist Ben Twingley and their great danes - who control all sitting and sleeping arrangements in the house. When she’s not working, you can often find her snorkeling the sandbar at Park East on Pensacola Beach, strolling the shoreline of the Pensacola Pass at Fort Pickens, or chasing her four-legged best buddy at Bayview Dog Park in East Hill.