Join a Florida Sea Turtle Walk
Loggerhead Sea Turtle, courtesy Edward Perry
It was a pitch dark, warm summer evening as a small crowd gathered at the Florida beach, the designated meeting point for our adventure. A Sea Turtle Preservation Society volunteer cheerfully greeted and gave us an idea of what to expect for the evening.
We were about to experience one of the most magical wonders of Florida – a giant loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs on the beach.
Before the walk, we heard a presentation on sea turtles as volunteer “advance” scouts spotted one emerging onto the beach to dig her nest.
We were then instructed to walk quietly, single file, along the water’s edge following the lead volunteer while being reminded that flashlights or flash photography were strictly prohibited. Infrared lights were used to lead us and to illuminate the hole in which the mama turtle was dutifully laying her eggs while she sat in a trance-like state oblivious to all around her.
Mother sea turtle preparing her nest, courtesy Edward Perry
Prior to our arrival, she had trekked from the water’s edge across the beach towards the sand dunes, fastidiously scooping out a deep cavity with her flippers. Situating her 200-350 pound body over the pit she slowly began to drop her eggs.
For almost an hour we watched in amazement while the mother turtle dropped around 100 ping-pong sized leathery eggs into the cylindrical sandy hole. Following her egg deposit, she then carefully covered her nest with the sand, and upon regaining her energy, slowly crawled back to the water’s edge and into the ocean, disappearing into the darkness of the vast ocean.
Mother sea turtle returning to the ocean, courtesy Edward Perry
From May through October, while we’re fast asleep, magical moments are quietly occurring along our Florida coastline. Over night, our beaches and barrier islands become North America’s #1 sea turtle nesting grounds. Mother loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles lumber onto Florida beaches depositing eggs into sandy, camouflaged nests.
Sea turtles nest along Florida's coastal beaches
There are three primary species of nesting turtles found along Florida's coasts. The loggerhead sea turtle, the most predominant species, derives its name from its extra large head, weighing between 200-350 pounds and measuring three to four feet in length. The endangered green turtle is rounded but distinctive with a smaller head. Its name is derived from the greenish fat in its upper and lower shell. The third species, the leatherback turtle, gets its name from its tough, leathery skin, and weighs in between 500-1300 pounds. Both the green and leatherback turtles are less common than the loggerhead, which averages four to seven nests per year.
Exhibit, sea turtle, Barrier Island Refuge, Melbourne Beach
To protect these endangered species and their nesting grounds, the turtle patrol volunteer rises before dawn to monitor long stretches of beach for signs of activity. Individuals search for fresh tracks, resembling small tractor treads, that signal the formation of a new nest. From the water’s edge, the tracks lead to higher ground and softer sand. Sometimes, the flipper tracks will create a semi-circle from the water up the beach and back to the water, called a “false crawl” which indicates the turtle has decided to return to the water. This usually means the turtle has been disturbed or did not find a suitable nesting site.
Volunteers often measure the distance from the water to the nest and sketch a diagram of the turtle’s path. Next, in some areas of Florida, the turtle patrol carefully digs into the sand looking for the eggs, found in a chamber below the surface. Once documented, the hole is filled and the nest is staked with neon-colored tape and an explanatory sign warning against disturbance. The tireless dedication of the turtle patrol not only protects the nests, but also provides important data for scientists to study and monitor sea turtle activity.
Sea Turtle eggs (dug by a volunteer to ensure a nest is present)
Incubation lasts approximately sixty days and as the nursery “due date” inches closer (can vary 4-5 days) a depression forms in the sand that indicates hatchling movements. Soon, the babies begin digging out “en masse” to start their journey to the water’s edge. The reflection of the moonlight on the water inspires their pathway to the sea. Once in the water, they will face marine predators but the greatest threat is the human one, through commercial fishing gear, artificial lighting, litter and development.
Sea Turtle tracks
Join a Turtle Walk
Volunteer led beach walks can be daytime or at night, which gives participants the opportunity to see new and fresh nests or see live loggerheads actually nesting, depositing the eggs, covering the nest and returning to the water. On Florida’s east coast, they are usually held in the evenings after 8:00 pm under moon lit skies. Tours are usually limited to small groups and preceded by an educational overview and discussion of sea turtles. A few of the programs include “turtle hatchling” evenings where participants can see the newly hatched babies crawl from the nest down to the water's edge.
The majority of organized turtle walks are on Florida’s Atlantic coast with 80% found between New Smyrna Beach and Boca Raton. The intense geographical density of the nesting activity creates more opportunities to see a turtle creating a nest. Most walks are June through July and all require advance reservations. Some walks will charge a donation or fee.
Many of the organizations that host sea turtle walks are small and volunteer driven, and it is best to call by phone to discuss availability.
If a Florida turtle walk is on your Authentic Florida Bucket List for 2014, then think about calling immediately to reserve your space.
Daytime Sea Turtle Walk to Look for Nests
Don't forget, the best way to get your space is calling by phone well in advance. With the exception of a few organizations, most of the websites won't share very much about the walks.
Usually the evening tour starts at a nature center or facility with a film overview while certified volunteer scouts are searching the beaches for nesting loggerheads. The volunteer then radios the group to join him/her for the nesting turtle beach viewing.
A staked sea turtle nest
Locations for Sea Turtle Walks (North - South)
Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville
386.428.3384, ext. 0, Reservations start May 15. Recommend calling back until you get a live person (no reservations on-line)
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday through July, 8 pm.
25 miles of seashore, turtle watching on the southern and northern ends
Sea Turtle Preservation Society, Melbourne/Satellite Beach
321.676.1701 (leave a message, cannot sign up on-line)
Walks are Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Friday & Saturday (June);
Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (July) - all subject to availability
Barrier Island Refuge, Melbourne Beach
Walks are Monday through Friday, June 2 - August 1, 2014
This is considered the largest and best nesting habitats for Loggerheads in the western hemisphere. Green and Leatherback turtles also nest here.
Sebastian Inlet State Park, Melbourne Beach
772.388.2750, Must call to reserve space (cannot sign up on-line), Reservations begin May 15th
Daily except Wednesdays & Thursdays, June & July, 9 pm
Florida Power & Light at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, St. Lucie Island
800.334.5483, Call and leave a message, Reservations begin May 1
Walks are Friday & Saturday, from June 6 – July 12, 9 pm
Hobe Sound Nature Center, Hobe Sound Public Beach
772.546.2067. Recommend calling, but you can make an inquiry on-line.
Thursday & Friday walks, for May - July, 8 pm
Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Juno Beach
561.627.8280, leave message (reservations can be made at www.marinelife.org/turtlewalks)
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach
561.776.7449, ext. 102
Sign ups begin May 28, 2014
Monday, Wednesday, Friday walks, 8 pm - midnight, June & July
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Boca Raton
Hosts both Turtle Walks and Hatchling Releases. Must buy ticket in person (unless out of state) - Check specific dates for May, June & July.
Museum of Discovery and Science, Ft. Lauderdale
954.713.0930, call to make a reservation, (cannot sign up on line)
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday walks, June 3 - July 10, 9 pm
Excellent displays and a visible live nest with incubating eggs (during summer)
John U. Lloyd Beach State Park, Dania Beach
954.924.3859, Must call, cannot sign up on-line
Wednesday, Friday walks, June & July
Westlake Park/Anne Kolb Nature Center, Hollywood - This is a baby Turtle Release Program
(954)357.5161, Must call to reserve space. Registration begins May 19th
Wednesday & Friday walks, July 2 - August 29, 8 pm
This is a hatchling program where you can view the babies travel from the nest to the water.
Rescued sea turtle hatchlings
Crandon Park Visitors’ and Nature Center, Key Biscayne
305.361.6767 ext. 112, 305.365.3018 for reservations - Can make reservations on-line
This is a hatchling program where you can view the babies travel from the nest to the water. Reservations begin July 1 for walks in July, August & September
Florida's West Coast Turtle Walk
Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory, a research facility that has been collecting turtle data for more than 30 years, offers Saturday morning walks the months of June and July, at 6:45 am. Meet at the Longboat Key public beach access point, 4795 Gulf of Mexico Drive, where parking is available. On the tour, Mote volunteers search for turtle tracks that lead to freshly laid nests so you can share the wonderment of Florida’s magical beach nursery.
What to Take
Long sleeve shirts, bug repellant and comfortable shoes. No camera equipment allowed. Expect to walk up to ½ - 1 mile in soft sand.
How can you help Florida’s sea turtles?
Tips for safeguarding our sea turtles:
· If you happen to come upon a nesting turtle, remain quiet and observe from a distance. Do not shine a flashlight or lamp.
· From May through October, if you are residing on/near the beach, turn off all lights visible from the beach. Pull drapes/blinds in the evening to dim the light cast upon the beach. (Turtles/hatchlings are oriented towards the light of the horizon and can be disoriented by artificial lights.)
· Pull all beach furniture away from the beach. (Turtles can get trapped in the furniture.)
· Fill in obvious beach holes where small hatchlings can fall unable to climb out.
· Pick up all trash from the beach
· Avoid fireworks on the beach (where sea turtles are nesting)
· Do not pick up turtle hatchlings.
· Become a volunteer and help our future sea turtle population!