Sea turtles are now nesting on Florida’s beaches, so be aware and follow the rules this season

A baby loggerhead sea turtle makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico after hatching from a Pinellas County beach.
A baby loggerhead sea turtle makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico after hatching from a Pinellas County beach.
[Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]

As Florida’s beaches become a tourism hot spot for the summer, they also become the nesting ground for tens of thousands of sea turtles.

Sea turtles begin nesting on southeastern Florida beaches in March, and their burrowing spreads to the rest of the Sunshine State’s beaches in later months. Official nesting season is from May until the end of October. Female sea turtles, most commonly loggerhead, green and leatherback, climb onto the shores of Florida’s beaches to lay their eggs during the night.

Each turtle digs a hole in the sand to lay around one hundred eggs on the same beach where they have nested in the past, according to the nonprofit Sea Turtle Conservancy. The turtles quickly bury the eggs with sand and retreat back into the ocean.

After about 60 days the eggs begin to hatch at which point the hatchlings must make their way into the water. Depending on the species of turtle, some will nest several times per season, and some just once.

Since all five species of Florida sea turtles — loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley — are endangered or threatened, it is important that beach property-owners and beachgoers do what they can to protect them while nesting.

This is where things can go wrong due to human disruption. When the hatchlings emerge from the nest they are genetically programmed to move towards the lightest object they see, said Theresa Arenholz, director of the volunteer conservation group Sea Turtle Trackers.

Historically the brightest light was the water with the reflection of the moon or the starlight. With the advent of artificial lighting, however, turtles may move towards condos, parking lots and other lit areas, she said.

Many cities and counties in Florida have adopted lighting ordinances to protect sea turtles, but there are no statewide ordinances in place. To ensure the turtles are safe, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks that all visitors and residents turn off any unnecessary lights on Florida beaches at night. This includes lights from cell phones, houses and flashlights. People living near the beach should close the curtains on any windows facing the shore.

For lights that must remain on, the FWC recommends amber LED lights that point downward. Businesses can find a list of turtle-safe fixtures on FWC’s website.

A study done by the Zoological Society of London in 2016 showed that two-thirds of Florida’s beaches are darker at night than they were in 1992. This correlates to more turtles nesting, around 150,000 in the last season according to FWC.

It is also important that beachgoers refrain from touching the turtles and taking pictures of them, as well as making sure the beach is flat, Arenholz said.

In addition, beach visitors should pick up any litter that may get in the turtles’ way including beach furniture, she said.

“We always say keep the beach clean, dark and flat,” she said. “After building a sand castle or trench make the sand flat again.”

Nests that researchers have identified are usually marked to warn people not to disturb the eggs. If you find any sea turtles in need, call FWC’s hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

To see sea turtles nesting up close without violating turtle ordinances, sign up for a nighttime sea turtle walk. The FWC offers a list of groups that organize walks, which are led by trained staff that know how to get close to the turtles without disturbing them. Contact a local park for reservations.

Cat Gloria, private eye for Floridabeachinsider.com, enjoys working alongside the ocean. Her beach expertise stems from her childhood spent on the shores of Wildwood, N.J.