If you've ever stayed on or near the beach in Destin or South Walton, you may have noticed some unusual sights. For one thing, exterior lighting for parking beside the beach is low lighted or amber-toned, and regular street lighting is subdued. This is particularly true along the boardwalks along Scenic Highway 98 in Destin and Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach. It provides a nice ambiance and allows you to see the starry skies at night, but that’s not the reason they are done this way. Another thing you will notice especially throughout the summer months, there are specially marked areas on the beach to keep people from trampling certain spots. The reason for this is that the Emerald Coast serves as an important nesting area for sea turtles!
Loggerheads are the most prevalent, but the beach also serves as a sandy nest of buried eggs by Greens, Leatherbacks and Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Mother turtles can lay as much as 100 eggs in each nest burying them deep into the sugary sand for protection. They begin to lay them as early as May, and the eggs incubate for up to 70 days. Eggs are usually laid in the early part of summer and most hatch in the early fall. The sea turtles emerge from their nests upon incubation at night when flying predators are not around to scoop them up for food. They drag themselves en masse with the other tiny turtles from their nest using little flippers to scoot across the sand into the water as fast as they can. This usually takes about fifteen minutes. Once they reach the water, they swim as far out into the gulf as possible to begin their new life. They usually eat jellyfish, seaweed and fish eggs as a main part of their diet. Male sea turtles never return to the shore after birth, but the females do so to lay their eggs. Loggerheads range in size from three to nine feet long when fully grown, weighing from 300 to over 900 pounds for the largest turtles. Most are a burgundy brownish color as they mature. All of these sea turtles have become endangered in recent years due to harvesting, which is now illegal. Only about one out of a thousand reach full maturity, so conservation efforts and sea life education have become an important factor to save their numbers.
One local group that has become instrumental in saving and protecting sea turtles is the South Walton Turtle Watch organization (southwaltonturtlewatch.org). Certain individuals are specially certified by law to interact with threatened sea turtles. The Endangered Species Act only allows those with special permits to help maintain nests, touch hatchlings or engage turtles. Sharon Maxwell who is a member of this nurturing group says “We as sea turtle volunteers go through many hours of training so that we can help these wonderful sea turtles. That is why we can get a sea turtle permit which allows us to help these endangered and threatened animals.” Dr. Robbin Trindell who is a leader in the turtle management program with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation said that people need to “help them survive by keeping our beaches free of obstacles, so adult and hatchlings are safe.” The following tips are provided by them to allow everyone who visits to help save our precious sea turtles.
Be Mindful of Lights
Keep lights low and only use red or amber turtle safe flashlights if you are walking along the beach at night. Make sure your flashlight is focused directly down on the beach and not up or across the shore since hatchlings that may possibly be on the move can become disoriented. If you are staying at an Ocean Reef Resorts beachfront property refrain from using bright lights on outdoor decks or balconies. Turtles use moonlight to navigate themselves towards the open Gulf waters which is why parking lights are amber toned or pointed down away from the beach.
Sea turtles can only slide along using their small side fins to go forward. They cannot move backward so if you dig a hole on the beach during the day, be sure to cover it back up. Also if you have made a sandcastle or mound of sand, please level it back down so it will not hinder the tiny hatchlings who might get stuck. The local motto along our beaches is “Leave only footprints behind,” and it is also the law. Umbrellas, beach chairs, tents, buckets, and watercraft must be removed at the end of each day, or it will be confiscated. Also, try to avoid burying umbrella poles deep into the sand. Use pole holders, sleeves or shallow anchors instead.
Avoid Nesting Areas
Stay away from marked sea turtle nest areas and do not get near a mother sea turtle if you see one up on the beach. She is there for only one reason, and that is to dig a deep hole to lay her eggs and should not be disturbed. Never touch a sea turtle or baby hatchling.
If you see a sea turtle who appears to be disoriented, sick or in some kind of trouble do not go near it. Contact the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
The Emerald Coast Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council offers free sea turtle tour walks every Monday and Wednesday evening at 7:30 From early June thru November. The walks include a thirty-minute orientation fielded by Dr. George Gray who is the county’s Sea Turtle Coordinator and licensed by the state to conduct annual endangered species surveys. The groups are open to a maximum of twenty people and reservations may be made by calling 850-865-0868.
With the beginning of Sea Turtle Nesting Season just around the corner, these tips are vital, so do share them with your friends and family. We hope you have a wonderful time on the shore, and remember to keep our beautiful beaches turtle safe!
Keep reading: Florida Sea Turtle Rescue