Summer has arrived in southwest Florida. The “snowbirds” migrate back north to escape the rising temperatures, while the rest of us who don’t mind the heat enjoy the peace and quiet of less traffic, wind open beaches, and no lines at local restaurants. But it’s my favorite time of year for another important reason.
It’s turtle season!
When I first moved here several years ago and ventured out to one of those restaurants with no lines, I learned my first important lesson about the turtles who come here to nest – turn off any outside lights that might attract them. As we sat at our table on the sand, in the dark except for a giant spotlight near the parking lot facing away from the sea, the waiter explained why he couldn’t turn on those cute little twinkle lights wrapped around the palm trees. Turtles follow the light. So turning off any bright lights along the shoreline allows sea turtles to nest in the sand without being attracted to places they shouldn’t be.
Where to see Sea Turtles
Each year along the Florida coast from May to September, sea turtles come ashore to build nests and lay their eggs in the soft sand. Females usually arrive late at night and crawl from the Gulf to lay their nests, with only about one in 1,000 turtles eventually surviving to adulthood.
Many parks and environmental groups offer nighttime sea turtle walks in June and July. You can see them anytime too with a tour of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Here are some places to see the magical nesting sea turtles in Florida:
- Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park
- Sebastian Inlet State Park Fishing Museum
- Barrier Island Sanctuary
- Sea Turtle Preservation Society
- John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
What to expect
Five species of sea turtles can be found here: Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Green, and perhaps the most common in southwest Florida – Loggerhead turtles. In terms of size, the turtles vary greatly. The smaller Kemp’s Ridley weigh around 75-100 pounds, whereas the Leatherback can weigh in at a whopping 1,300 pounds and grow to up to 8 feet long! Leatherbacks have also been known to defy the standard by coming ashore as early as February, and depending on water temperature, their hatchlings can emerge well into the winter months.
The turtles dig between 40,000 and 84,000 nests in the sand each year along Florida beaches. On average, Loggerheads lay 100 eggs or so in each nest roughly the size of ping pong balls, and can dig 2 to 3 nests per season. The hatchlings then begin to emerge after about 60 days. As the sun sets and the warm sand begins to cool (usually in late evening) the turtle hatchlings dig out of their nest at the same time, a process that can take several days. Then off they go, instinctually seeking the Gulf of Mexico by looking for any bit of natural light reflecting off the water.
On their way however, many hatchlings die of dehydration if they don’t make it to the sea fast enough. With such exposure and wide beaches to cross, animals such as birds, raccoons, and crabs will prey on them as they make their way to the water. For the ones who do make it, this first trek “imprints” their home beach into the hatchlings, and they will return again as adults to lay their nests on the very same beach.
Did you know Florida has such amazing wildlife?
What You Can Do to Help Sea Turtles
- All five species in Florida are listed as either endangered (Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley turtle) or threatened, as with the Loggerhead. Therefore it is illegal to harass, harm, or kill any sea turtles, hatchlings, or eggs.
- It is also illegal to import, sell, or transport turtles or products made from turtles.
- Flashlights – If you’re exploring the beaches in Florida at night, use “turtle safe lighting” – red lights that emit a very narrow portion of the visible light spectrum. This is much less intrusive to nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. Attach a shield to your flashlight so turtles and hatchlings are not disoriented by the light.
- Never disturb or hinder the path of an adult or baby turtle, and PLEASE resist the temptation to pick up hatchlings! Take only pictures, leave only footprints.