Sea Turtle Nesting Season runs from May through October
Each year, sea turtle “season” officially begins on May 1. There are no parades or special events to mark the opening of the season – but early risers may notice something different.
Most visitors to the beautiful beaches of Florida’s Historic Coast are aware that sea turtles come here each summer to lay their eggs. But it is highly unlikely that they will see one. Sea turtles usually only come ashore late at night or early morning before sunrise and they are intent on creating their nests, laying their eggs and getting back in the ocean as quickly as their ponderous bodies will permit. On the other hand, large gopher tortoises are usually visible in the dunes on a daily basis throughout the year. Yes, they look like turtles and they are at the beach, but they are NOT sea turtles. It’s important to know the difference.
Each year, sea turtle “season” officially begins on May 1. There are no parades or special events to mark the opening of the season – but early risers may notice something different. Just before sunrise, a well-trained Sea Turtle Patrol volunteer is likely to be seen walking the beach – and will continue to be seen each morning until October 31. Their job is to find, report and mark new nests that have been laid the previous night. Most are responsible for patrolling a one-mile section of beach. When they find a nest, they mark it with wooden stakes and “caution” tape to keep people and vehicles from getting too close to the fragile nest. Within a few weeks, these marked nests become common sights along the beach. The information gathered during the patrols often is useful in determining the species of turtle that laid the nest, as well as for making an estimate on when the nest might hatch. In addition, these sea turtle volunteers report problems like holes and ditches that have been dug or formed naturally in the beach – these could cause problems for sea turtles. And, of course, they pick up plastic debris and often take a personal photo of the awesome sunrise. Their work has to be finished no later than 8 a.m. – until their reports are submitted, the beaches can’t be opened to vehicles.
The turtles that nest here are amazing – and huge! By far, the most common is the loggerhead. These average about three feet in length and 300 pounds in weight. Why do they come here to nest? Well, this is where they were born many years ago and it takes a very long time for them to return. When first time nesters come ashore, it is likely they have not been out of the ocean since they hatched here about 17 years ago! Even more mature turtles only come ashore to lay eggs every three or four years. Needless to say, for them, nesting is a really, really big deal. And what about the males that hatched here? They never return to shore and spend as many as 50 years swimming far out in the ocean. A few leatherback turtles also nest here – they are even larger than the loggerheads. Every species of sea turtle is federally protected.
Sea turtle nests are very sensitive. They typically contain about 120 eggs – each about the size of a ping-pong ball – buried two to three feet beneath the sand. While there, high tides can bring seawater in and destroy the eggs. Predators such as raccoons and dogs sometimes dig up the nest (Turtle Patrols may put metal mesh over the nests to keep predators from digging). It has taken millions of years for these turtles to develop their nesting and survival instincts, so it is really important that we don’t interfere.
Don’t approach sea turtles. If you are lucky enough to encounter a sea turtle on the beach, stay away! The task of dragging herself ashore, digging a nest, laying eggs, covering the nest and returning to the ocean is exhausting and stressful. Also, the presence of humans can scare them back into the ocean before they lay their eggs. Don’t make it even more difficult!
Don’t use flashlights or flash photography on the beach. Turtles find their way to the ocean by instinctively heading to the light of the moon and stars reflecting on the water. Flashlights or flash photography confuse them.
Turn off lights on porches and balconies facing the ocean. The nests hatch after sunset (how do the turtles know it’s dark?) and the hatchlings scramble toward the moonlit ocean – unless they see a bright light beyond the dunes. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find dead hatchlings in condo parking lots.
Fill in holes. Beach goers like to dig holes in the sand – that’s just what they do. But before nightfall, fill in the holes. Both adult sea turtles and hatchings can fall into holes and become trapped. Stepping in one of these holes in the dark is also a great way for humans to twist an ankle or worse.
OK, so you probably won’t see a sea turtle on Florida’s Historic Coast, but it would be hard not to see a gopher tortoise. Use any dune walkover to get to the beach and odds are if you look down, you’ll see one or more large tortoises lounging in the sun. Most people say: “Wow, look at the big turtle!” But they aren’t turtles, they are land tortoises – the only species of tortoises found east of the Mississippi River.
Like sea turtles, they have existed for millions of years. But, unlike sea turtles that travel thousands of miles during their lifetimes, gopher tortoises probably won’t go more a than few hundred feet from their burrows during their 50-year lifetimes. These burrows are usually about 15 feet long and about 7 feet deep – but can sometimes be much longer and deeper. Because their body temperature is determined by their environment, tortoises spend most of their time in the burrow where the temperature remains comfortable on the hottest and coldest days. Of course, they come out to eat and be in the sun – and, during the summer months, to mate.
While sea turtles are laying eggs in nests dug beneath the beach, gopher tortoises are laying eggs beneath the sand in the dunes. Their eggs are also the size of ping-pong balls, but they only lay 9-10 at a time. These usually hatch in October.
Humans are the biggest threat to gopher tortoises. Over development destroys their habitat, their burrows and often kills them directly. They are protected by law and are not to be touched except with one exception – if you can do so safely, it is permissible to move a tortoise from a street or highway as long as you take it to the side of the road where it was headed. Death from cars happens frequently, especially in summer when female tortoises are looking for nesting sites.
Also, DO NOT PUT TORTOISES IN THE OCEAN!
Some people seem to think gopher tortoises are sea turtles and try to “help” them get to the ocean. Tortoises are sometimes seen briefly at or in the very edge of the surf. Scientists think they do this to wash parasites from their scales. These tortoises can’t swim – they will drown within seconds of being placed in the ocean.