It is sea turtle nesting season in the islands and along the southern shores of the US. Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in our waters – Leatherback, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, Green, Loggerhead, and Olive Ridley.
While sea turtles were once numerous in warm waters around the world, all species are now endangered with the exception of the Loggerhead, currently listed as
threatened. Future articles will cover individual species; however, since it is
nesting season, there is an urgency to educate all who use our seas and
Sea turtles generally nest from May through October.
The nesting females return to the
beaches where they hatched many years previously, while male sea turtles never
return to land. Females do not reach reproductive age for 20-30 years and
mating takes place in the sea in early spring.
Beginning in May, the females drag and push their heavy carapaces up on beaches during the night where they use their rear flippers to excavate nest sites in the sand. The
nesting females may dig several nests over a season, returning to the beach
every two weeks. Once a nest is dug, the female deposits up to 100 leathery,
golf ball-sized eggs that they cover and camouflage with sand and debris. By
morning, the female has returned to the sea, never to see her offspring.
After a two month incubation period – where sand temperature determines the sex – the hatchlings emerge in mass after dark. Although sea turtles have acute sight underwater,
they are visually handicapped on land so the hatchlings follow instinct and
make their way toward the lightest area, which is the sea’s horizon.
Night protects them somewhat, but on their short journey to the sea the defenseless two-inch hatchlings are subjected to predation by birds, crabs, and domestic and feral
animals. Once they enter the sea, many are taken by fish before they are able
to reach the shelter of sea weed where some believe they live for up to 20
years, sometimes swimming frantically for days without food while living on the
remaining yoke sacs until they reach relative safety.
Only 1 of every 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood due to multitudinous dangers. During sea turtle nesting season it is imperative for us to protect nesting beaches so
that the hatchlings make it to the sea.
Because the emerging hatchlings go toward light, turning off decorative beach lighting,
neon signs, and bright house lights is critical in preventing them from going
toward land rather than the sea. Building bonfires on beaches should be avoided
during nesting season since the fires heat up the sand and destroy turtle eggs.
Pets should be contained in fences or walked on leashes to prevent them attacking hatchlings or digging up nests. Feral animals should be reported to local animal control
boards so that they can be captured, not only for the nesting females’ and
hatchlings’ sake but also for the safety of domestic animals and beach goers.
Horses, off-road vehicles, and passenger vehicles should never be used on beaches during sea turtle nesting season since their weight can compress the sand, breaking eggs
and preventing hatchlings from digging their way out.
Beaches should be cleaned of debris that would inhibit the hatchlings’ progress to the sea since they are so small and unable to climb over or through garbage, marine debris,
and, particularly, abandoned fishing line.
If one sees a nesting turtle, local wildlife officials should be called immediately so they
can mark the nest to prevent intrusion. Seeing a nesting turtle is a rare
experience that should be enjoyed from a distance, without lights or noise that
might disturb the female and send her quickly back into the sea before she has
completed her nest.
When we realize that only 1 of every 1,000 hatchlings survives to reproduce, turning off a few lights, cleaning a beach, containing our pets, using a grill instead of a
bonfire, and walking softly on the sand for a few months is so little to ask.