Educational events at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center are back after COVID-19 precautions kept the center closed to the public for two years. Archelon, a 25-year-old loggerhead turtle, was released in front of a crowd of more than 100 on March 1 at Spanish River Park in Boca Raton. She had been treated at Gumbo Limbo since her December rescue near the Port St. Lucie FPL plant. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star BELOW RIGHT: Tracks from a loggerhead, our most common nesting turtle. Mary Kate Leming/The Coastal Star
As nesting season starts again, public gets better chance to enjoy with reopening of Gumbo Limbo
As surely as monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico and sandhill cranes to Nebraska, sea turtles arrive annually on Florida beaches to nest. Once again they have begun to return in South County, after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.
Sea turtle nesting season is from March 1 to Oct. 31. The first nest spotted on a Boca Raton beach this year was Feb. 22, a leatherback’s.
“That was only the fourth time in the last 20 years that we had a February nest,” said David Anderson, sea turtle conservation coordinator at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Anderson and his team survey Boca Raton’s 5 miles of beaches and record nesting data every year.
Five species of marine turtles nest in Florida, but only three — leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens — typically come ashore on South County beaches. All five species are listed as endangered or threatened and protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The first to arrive are leatherbacks. They nest on South County beaches in far smaller numbers than on beaches farther north. Only 21 nests were located by Gumbo Limbo in Boca Raton last year, yet that was above average. In contrast, there were 647 loggerhead nests and 190 green sea turtle nests.
Sea Turtle Adventures tracks nests on 3 miles of beaches in Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream and part of Ocean Ridge. Its volunteers counted 24 leatherback nests last year — a record number.
Loggerheads are particularly partial to Palm Beach County beaches. In fact, they dug more nests here than in any other Florida county in 2020, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation data — 29,465 nests to 26,991 at runner-up Brevard County. No other county was close.
Florida’s east coast beaches are far more popular nesting sites than those on the west coast, accounting for 88% of the 133,472 nests tabulated in 2020.
Female marine turtles nest every two to three years, digging holes on beaches at night and depositing 80 to 120 eggs, which they cover with sand. Hatchlings incubate for two months before emerging — mostly after dark — and scurrying to the ocean. Some, however, die first of dehydration. And predators such as raccoons, birds and crabs pluck eggs and hatchlings from the sand.
For those that reach the water, the challenges have just begun. They will attempt to swim out 10 miles or farther on the ocean’s surface to reach shelter in the sargassum seaweed.
“They’re snack-size for so many fish that look up and see the silhouette of a baby turtle,” Anderson said. “Not to mention birds from the sky that see them.”
Add to that the plastic and other pollution, boat strikes, disease, gill nets and other hindrances and you see why only about 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survives to adulthood.
Eisa Alam, of Lake Worth Beach, is helped by his family members and veterinarian Dr. Maria Chadam as he treats a plastic model hawksbill while learning how real turtles are treated at Gumbo Limbo’s rehabilitation facility. Honey is an effective antibacterial. This was part of the center’s Sea Turtle Day on March 12. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Beachgoers can help nesting sea turtles and their offspring have a better chance to succeed.
If you see a sea turtle nesting, quietly remain behind her and observe from a distance. If she’s frightened, she may return to the ocean without covering her eggs completely.
Don’t leave unfilled holes or beach furniture, sand castles and other impediments on the sand. Nesting turtles can become stuck in furniture, or more often, turn around without making a nest. These false crawls commonly exceed the number of nests.
“We get a turtle stuck in beach furniture almost every summer,” Anderson said.
Do not disturb nests. You can spot them by the stakes and signs marking their presence.
Don’t use flashlights, cellphones, flash photography or other light sources at night on turtle nesting beaches. Lights can disturb turtles and result in false crawls. If you come upon hatchlings emerging from a nest, watch them from a distance, taking care not to disorient them.
Many Florida coastal communities have ordinances regulating lighting by oceanfront properties. Compliance is crucial to hatchlings’ survival. Newborns instinctively head toward the brightest direction, usually the light on the open horizon. If they follow lights from beachfront condos and other buildings, they likely will die.
Allow hatchlings to go to the ocean on their own. If you see one that appears injured or is on a beach during the day, don’t place it in the water. Instead, put it in a container with damp sand on the bottom — not water — and place it in the cooler labeled “Hatchling Drop-Off” outside the front door at Gumbo Limbo.
Even people who monitor beaches for nests every year have no way of knowing whether it will be a boom or bust season for any particular species.
“It will be impossible to predict,” Anderson said. “We’ve got all our equipment maintained and we’re ready for whatever happens.”