Want to Spot Sea Turtle Nesting Season in Action? Here’s How to Do It Safely
Be a hero to to the halfshells.
Like most reptiles, sea turtles are not exactly maternal. While other oceanic creatures coddle—orcas and whales feed milk to their young and impart hunting skills while one deep sea octopus has been found to nurture her eggs for four and a half years—pregnant turtles just dig a hole on a sandy beach and plop up to 110 of their ping pong ball-sized eggs inside. She then flaps her flippers to cover them with sand and takes off—or,rather, slowly crawls off—back to the water. But that’s not to say she’s completely negligent.
“Her most motherly trait is her nest site selection,” explains Kendra Cope, executive director of Coastal Connections in Florida's Vero Beach, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting sea turtles. “She’s very particular about where she lays her eggs, and the predators or dangers around.” According to Cope, turtle moms will return to the beach between four and eight times each season to nest, but will never give the laid clutches a second thought—even after they hatch a couple months later. Unfortunately, thanks to predators, hurricanes, dehydration, real estate development, and general human-fueled disturbances, only about one in 1,000 make it back to the ocean, rendering all seven sea turtle species either critically endangered or threatened. Hey, at least the hatchlings never have to feel guilty about forgetting Mother’s Day.
How nesting works
The sandy shores of Florida are home to 90% of sea turtle nests in the United States, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy. They’re found all along the coastline, but are most plentiful on the Atlantic side, where turtles paddle thousands of miles from their foraging homes back to the beach where they were born, using the Earth’s magnetic fields as a guide.
We’re currently in the thick of the nesting season, which unofficially begins mid- to late-February as massive leatherbacks begin to nest. It’s truly a sight to behold, with the largest and heaviest turtles clocking in at up to 6.5 feet long and 1500 pounds.
Florida’s official nesting season begins May 1, and hatchlings make their appearances through early November. After the leatherbacks come the loggerhead turtles—the most abundant species—and green turtles, as well as the occasional hawksbill and the rare Kemp’s ridley. They swarm the beaches under the cover of night (except the Kemp’s ridley, a daytime nester), in an attempt to propagate. “They’re most likely going to nest on darker beaches because that means there’s less predators,” adds Cope. “Less interaction from unwanted guests.”
You may have seen footage of the incredible natural spectacle: A gang of two-inch hatchlings emerging from the sandy depths, then crawling as fast as their flippers will go toward the ocean. Like their mothers, the hatchlings also rely on darkness, waiting until it’s cool before emerging then seeking the brightest horizon to navigate toward. “That’s the instinct they’re attracted to,” says Cope. In a natural scenario, the brightest horizon is the moon and the stars reflected off the water, but in a more modern-day setting, the brightest horizon is often a coastal development, roadway, or building. “We’ve had hatchlings crossing streets, we’ve had hatchlings stuck in swimming pools, we’ve had hatchlings in people’s yards,” says Cope.
Which is why things may work a little differently if you visit one of these Florida beaches during sea turtle nesting season. You might see some nests marked off, for one, both to safeguard eggs in high-traffic areas and to collect data for research organizations. At night, your eyes will have to adjust. Thanks to local ordinances, indoor and artificial lights visible from the beach must be shielded, replaced with red, orange, or amber bulbs not visible to the sea turtles, or turned off completely. Many public beaches are closed to humans, and bright beach lights, flashlights, flash cameras, video recorders, and other types of artificial lighting are prohibited. And they’re serious—if you’re caught disturbing turtles, nests, or hatchlings, you’ll be swiftly fined or arrested.
How to share the beach during sea turtle nesting season
But even though these nesting beaches are vital to the survival of endangered and threatened species—no pressure—rest assured we can both still enjoy some time on the sand. “We want people to utilize the beaches,” says Cope. “But the big thing is, leave the place better than you found it.” As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes, human impact on the beach at night is becoming a significant issue for nesting turtles and their hatchlings, along with beachfront lighting, coastal armoring, beach furniture, boats, tents, and other items left ashore.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to be a good steward. First, read up on the local lighting ordinances, and avoid using cell phones or flashlights on the beach at night. “Use the natural light from the stars and the moon,” suggests Cope. “And if that’s not something that you’re comfortable with, re-evaluate if walking on the beach at night is the best decision.”
All beach gear should be gone by sunset and all trash—especially fishing line—thrown away properly. And if you dug any holes in the sand, make sure to fill them in. “Big holes can be death traps,” explains Cope. “Adult sea turtles are 200 to 300 pounds and used to living in a zero-gravity environment underwater, and when they come up to the beach, that’s no longer the case.” Getting up the beach takes a massive amount of energy, and to then get stuck in a giant hole is a huge bummer, to say the least. “If you didn’t find it with a giant hole in the ground, don’t leave it with a giant hole in the ground.”
Sandcastles should also be demolished, no matter how award-worthy they may be. They create obstacles and may confuse baby turtles trying out their new sea legs. “That could be another barricade, and potentially another deathtrap,” says Cope.
Avoid feeding the turtles, as that encourages them to wander into high-traffic areas. If you see a sick, injured, or disoriented turtle, report it, either to the FWC, or, if you’re in Vero Beach, to Coastal Connections. And we probably don’t have to tell you this, but never buy products made from sea turtles.
While using the beach, note all the marked nests, but be aware that not all nests are marked and there could be a nest just about anywhere. And if you do happen to spot a sea turtle nesting, keep your distance, be very still and quiet, and turn off all lights. The same goes for hatchlings—allow them to crawl on their own to the water and never interfere with the process.
How to observe nesting sea turtles in style
Geared up to see the poetry in motion? Nesting sea turtles thrive on a dark and quiet beach, away from distractions which could cause them to do things like say, leave the beach without nesting, fail to cover their nests properly, or drop their eggs in random places. While the FWC “does not recommend beach visitors seek out nesting females on their own,” there are educational organizations authorized to conduct nighttime turtle walks, taking visitors out in groups to witness the phenomenon. These include the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Melbourne Beach, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, and Cope’s own Coastal Connections in Vero Beach, located in the Indian River County—aka sea turtle heaven.
“We’re lucky to have not one but two national wildlife refuges in Indian River County,” she says. “America’s first national wildlife refuge, Pelican Island, and the only national wildlife refuge dedicated to the survival of sea turtles, the Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge.” The beaches in Archie Carr, in particular, are some of the most densely nested beaches for loggerheads in the entire country.
Coastal Connections offers free nighttime turtle walks, where you can join the team to witness a loggerhead making a nest, as well as daytime turtle digs where guests team up with researchers to inspect marked nests three days after they hatch, collect information on their success rates, and get up close and personal with all things sea turtles. “People get the opportunity many times to see a hatchling, or at least see the remnants of the eggs and other parts of that nest,” says Cope. Facilities that house and rehabilitate sea turtles also provide educational and volunteering opportunities for budding turtle-heads.
And even if you’re unable to fulfill all your sea turtle dreams by catching them IRL, there are still actions you can take to help nesting season go smoothly. Consider assisting with beach cleanups to remove obstacles, adopting a turtle from afar, or, if you’re a Florida resident, requesting a specialty sea turtle license plate to benefit the Marine Resources Conservation Trust Fund.
“We want people to know that visiting the area doesn’t mean you can’t help sea turtles,” Cope adds. “We want people to be a part of that conservation success story.”