Florida Sea Turtle Walks
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. As Florida’s continued development threatens turtle propagation, special volunteers safeguard these endangered species while introducing us to the wonders of Florida’s coastal nursery.
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 of similar size but possesses a more streamlined appearance. 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.
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.
Once volunteers discover a new nest, they measure the distance from the water to the nest and sketch a diagram of the turtle’s path. Next, the turtle patrol carefully digs into the sand looking for the eggs, which resemble ping-pong balls and are 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.
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, around 100 babies begin digging out “en masse” and 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.
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. At this printing, half of the organizations already had waiting lists, but a handful of organizations still had room for reservations.
If a Florida turtle walk is on your Authentic Florida Bucket List for 2014, then mark your calendar for May to begin reserving your space.
Another way to experience a turtle walk is to go with someone who volunteers with a turtle patrol. My friend, Mary Jo Perkins, a veteran Mote Marine Laboratory volunteer, invited me to join her on several walks on Casey Key, (Nokomis) where we discovered nests and tracks.
Florida East Coast Turtle Walks
Don't forget, the best way to get your space is calling by phone. 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.
Sea Turtle Preservation Society, Melbourne/Satellite Beach
321.676.1701 (leave a message)
Walks are Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Friday & Saturday (June);
Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (July) - all subject to availability
Friday, Saturday (August)
Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Juno Beach
561.627.8280, leave message (reservations can be made at www.marinelife.org/turtlewalks)
Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville
386.428.3384, ext. 0
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday through July.
25 miles of seashore, turtle watching on the southern and northern ends
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Boca Raton
Hosts both Turtle Walks and Hatchling Releases. Must buy ticket in person (unless out of state) - Call July 20th, starting 9 am.
Crandon Park Visitors’ and Nature Center, Key Biscayne
305.361.6767 ext. 112
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
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Melbourne Beach - limited space available
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday through July
This is considered the largest and best nesting habitats for Loggerheads in the western hemisphere. Green and Leatherback turtles also nest here.
Try the following for next year. Most are booked but mark your calendars for May 2014 by calling ahead.
Florida Power & Light, Hutchinson Island, Jensen Beach (St. Lucie Island) - Note: on waiting list for season
Walks from June 8th – July 10th
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach - Note: on waiting list for season
Monday, Wednesday, Friday walks
John U. Lloyd Beach State Park, Dania Beach - Note: on waiting list for season
Wednesday, Friday walks
Hobe Sound Nature Center, Hobe Sound Public Beach - Note: on waiting list for season
Tuesday & Thursday walks
Museum of Discovery and Science, Ft. Lauderdale
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday walks
Excellent displays and a visible live nest with incubating eggs (during summer)
Westlake Park/Anne Kolb Nature Center, Hollywood - Note: Sold out
Wednesday & Friday walks
This is a hatchling program where you can view the babies travel from the nest to the water.
Sebastian Inlet State Park, Melbourne Beach - Note: on waiting list for season
Daily except Wednesdays & Thursdays (only FREE program offered)
West Coast Turtle Walks
On the Gulf coast, Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory, a research facility that has been collecting turtle data for over 30 years, offers Saturday walks the months of June & July at 6:45 am at the Longboat Key Hilton.
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?
Here are some well-advised 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!