Shrouded in darkness on a south Florida beach, I crouched about 20 feet behind a loggerhead sea turtle, waiting. I watched in silence, eyes straining in the weak red light of my headlamp, as she deposited one soft, ping-pong-ball-sized egg after another onto a quickly growing pile. I was witnessing the perilous propagation of an endangered species—a rare and spectacular sight.
And perilous might be an understatement: once hatchlings emerge from the sand, only 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 will actually make it to the Gulf Stream where they feast on algae, seaweed, and jellyfish as they grow into adults. Of the millions of eggs laid each year along Florida coasts, only several hundred turtles are likely to make it to sexual maturity.
That’s because the hatchlings that make it to the water without getting picked off by sea birds or led astray by distracting lights on the beach may succumb to boating or fishing accidents or trash and pollution in waterways. Given all those risks, it’s important to offer sea turtles the best chance of survival from the get-go, and you can start by protecting nests and hatchlings on North America’s beaches this summer.
When is sea turtle nesting season?
The time of year that sea turtles nest, lay eggs, and hatch depends on the species and where in North America you are. Loggerheads and green sea turtle nests are abundant in Florida, but loggerheads also crawl ashore from Alabama to North Carolina. Similarly, green turtles will lay eggs in Hawaii, Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Kemp’s ridley sea turtle—a critically endangered species—is more likely to be found in Texas and Mexico. Leatherbacks primarily nest in Mexico, Florida, and the Caribbean, while hawksbill sea turtles mainly reproduce in Hawaii and the Caribbean.
For most species, April to October are active times for nesting and hatching—almost perfectly coinciding with prime beach-going season. Take the loggerhead, for example: When a female is ready to nest, she slowly heaves her 300-pound body up the beach until she feels dry sand under her chin, sometimes going far beyond the high tide line. She then digs a 2-foot deep hole with her back flippers, lays an average of 120 eggs, refills the hole with sand, and heads back to the water. The whole process might take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on the species, and female turtles will do it every two weeks, for an average total of four to six nests.
But if a turtle spots you on her way up the beach or while digging, she may stop and retreat to the ocean. That’s a problem, because if she tries and fails more than a couple of times to build a nest, she’ll give up and deposit her clutch of eggs in the ocean where they won’t hatch. And because sea turtle species are endangered, some critically, every nest is crucial for their recovery, says Mary Kay Skoruppa, US Fish and Wildlife Service sea turtle coordinator for the Texas coast, speaking specifically of the Kemp’s ridley.
Turn your lights off
While most adult sea turtles avoid bright light instinctually, hatchlings are attracted to artificial light, explains Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist in charge of South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Patrol. When baby turtles emerge, they know to look for the moon reflecting off the ocean, lighting their way to the water. But if there’s a bright porch light or lantern nearby, they’ll scurry toward it instead, resulting in almost certain death.
So if you’re on the beach at night during nesting season, use a red light instead of a regular white one; red doesn’t attract or irritate nesting turtles or hatchlings.
At a beachfront property, turn the outside lights off at night and use dark-sky-approved fixtures that are downward-facing and shielded on the beach side of the house, fitted with warm-colored bulbs. Interior light shouldn’t be pouring onto the beach, either, explains Kuehn, so consider tinting your windows or using light-blocking curtains or blinds. In many places, including Hilton Head, there are even municipal codes detailing turtle-protection directives.
Clean up your act
It’s just as important to take protective action during the day when you’re at the beach. Only the Kemp’s ridley builds nests during daylight hours, but daytime activities can still threaten sea turtles that come ashore or hatch at night.
Sandcastles and holes, for example, can trap turtles or block their paths to and from the water. It only takes a hole a few inches deep to ensnare a hatchling, likely killing it. So whether you’re building or digging, make sure to level the sand before you leave.
It should go without saying, but don’t leave any trash on the beach, either, no matter how small. Plastic straws are notorious for the risks they pose to sea turtles, but plastic bags, fishing line, candy wrappers, and really any type of garbage can endanger them as a tangling or choking hazard.
If your pup is accompanying you to the beach, keep it on a leash, especially at night. Dogs can easily injure sea turtles or scare them away from a nesting area.
Be careful when driving on the beach
In places like Daytona Beach, Florida, or the Texas coast, where driving on the sand is permitted, take extra care when motoring along. Follow posted speed limit signs and keep an eye out for turtle tracks, especially if you’re cruising early in the morning. “They’re 400-pound reptiles; they leave a mark,” Kuehn jokes. Their flipper prints resemble ATV tracks, but start and end in the water. Nests, however, are harder to spot, she says. Foot traffic and wind make the tracks less visible as the day goes on, so trained teams usually canvas beaches for signs of nesting early in the morning.
In Texas, the Kemp’s ridley nests during the day, but that doesn’t mean they’re easier to see: after a female fills in her nest, her back will be covered with camouflaging sand.
What to do if you spot a turtle nesting
If you happen to be nearby when a sea turtle is making her way up the beach, it’s important not to give her a reason to abandon her mission. So keep your distance—50 feet is a good rule of thumb for pedestrians; 100 feet for motorized vehicles, according to Skoruppa. You should also lower your voice, and absolutely do not block her path whether she’s headed out of or into the water.
Once she starts laying, you can inch a little closer, as long as you stay behind her, advises Kuehn. Once a turtle starts laying, she will finish the job. Just remain quiet, keep a respectful distance so you don’t frighten her, and turn off any headlamps or flashlights. If you want to take photos, turn off your flash.
“Enjoy the moment and consider yourself blessed,” Skoruppa says. “It’s a magnificent thing to witness.”
Once the turtle is gone, mark the nest site by laying pieces of driftwood or other beach debris in a large circle around the area so biologists can find the nest during patrol. Just don’t disturb the nest itself once the animal has departed. Not only could you hurt the eggs inside, but it’s a federal offense.
Finally, call a local agency to alert them to the nest’s location. Most beaches will have signs with contact information, but if not, a good bet is to ring your state’s wildlife agency or the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
We hope you have a safe, enjoyable visit to the beach this season, but make sure the species who rely on it do, too.