With May 1 the beginning of sea turtle nesting season in the Florida Panhandle, preparations are being made for one of the area’s most welcome summer guests.
Five species of sea turtles are found in the Gulf of Mexico, three of which are known to nest on Pensacola Beach: the loggerhead, the green turtle, and the Kemp’s Ridley. Of those, the loggerhead is most common.
“Historic nesting data on Pensacola Beach shows that we get a fairly uniform nesting density across the beach,” says Tim Day, Escambia County’s Environmental Programs Manager. “The only time we will shift any nests is directly on Casino Beach, by the pier. Those nests will relocate to a little less densely-used area.”
Day adds they work to create an environment where contact between human and turtle is kept as minimal as possible.
“One of the benefits of the ‘Leave No Trace’ concepts that we’ve implemented is folks are more than welcome to utilize everything during the daytime, but at nighttime we pick everything up [and] give it back to nature and let nature take its course.”
Sometimes traveling great distances, sea turtles return to the beach of their hatching to lay their eggs. Last year, there was a “bumper crop” of turtle eggs from three dozen nests, resulting in about 2,600 hatchlings that entered the Gulf.
“Beginning May 1st, we will patrol four sections of beach simultaneously every morning at dawn, almost to the end of September,” said Mark Nichols at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Nichols, is the sea turtle permit holder for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which handles all sea turtle nesting. The permit allows him to conduct various operations with both paid staff and volunteers.
“We typically locate the eggs, and then mark that area off to secure and protect it from the public,” Nichols says. “There is a data sheet that the volunteers fill, then we can tell what species it actually was by how the crawl looks. A green turtle crawls differently from a loggerhead.”
About 60 days after nesting the eggs begin to hatch, and the baby turtles will key in on the brightest horizon. Before there was artificial lighting, that would be over the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’ve kind of reversed that, so now inland has the brighter horizon,” Nichols said. “So frequently, when the turtles emerge they travel the wrong way. Unless it’s a very clear sky with about a three-quarter to full moon showing.”
Just after hatching, the baby turtles face the most dangerous period of their lives. Gulls, crabs and other predators attack and feed on them. A large percentage of hatchlings never make it to the sea, and only about one percent will live to lay their own eggs. Those who do live to adulthood have very few natural enemies because of their size.
To lessen the dangers of artificial lighting, residents and businesses can take advantage of turtle-friendly devices recommended by Fish and Wildlife.
“What they’re going with now is an LED light, amber in color,” said Nichols. “It’s a light that directs light to the ground where it’s needed, rather than out to the sides and up, so we don’t get that sky glow.”
Sea turtles face many other hazards on local beaches -- boat impacts, plastic in the water and on the beach, deep holes dug during the day, along with chairs and umbrellas that block their paths.
And as if that’s not enough, there are poachers seeking their eggs. Tim Day with Escambia County has some advice when you approach a nest – stay away. And he’s backed by some extra incentive, courtesy of Florida and federal law.
“It can be anything from up to a quarter-million dollar fine, and up to six months in jail,” said Day. “So, please leave them alone.”