The first sea turtle of the summer has nested — a huge, awe-inspiring leatherback. Our volunteers are out again at dawn looking for the V-shaped trails in the sand that show the arrival of our ancient, reptile visitors.
These leathery ladies are the canaries in the coal mine of the ocean, and by that designation, indicators of Mother Earth’s well-being.
Last year, more than 20,000 sea turtle nests were reported along Palm Beach County beaches. Without our stewardship their future is in danger.
This year, three of those stewards departed the rescue section of South County’s premier sea turtle hospital. One by choice, two let go. With them went Gumbo Limbo’s license to treat injured turtles.
No clear reasons have been articulated, and the center’s Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards nonprofit management has hired a public relations firm to talk with residents and the media, so we may never know. The scientists — who lost their jobs — are outraged at how the debacle unfolded, alleging chronic mismanagement and a failure of the nonprofit’s leaders to support the sea turtle care mission.
The only certainty is that no more turtles reside at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center — and no one knows when they might be back.
The good news is that turtle experts remain at the center to monitor nesting and hatching. If an injured or sick turtle is found, however, it likely will be transported to a hospital more than 40 miles away.
As Tim Stepien’s beautiful photographs in this edition show, all along our coast volunteers and professionals are out helping the nesting turtles (and soon their hatchlings), but you, too, can help this summer. Here’s how:
Turn off the lights — Nesting and hatchling turtles need the dark. Talk with your city or town and condo boards about making sure no external lighting is visible from the beach this time of year. And if you’re on the barrier island, consider turning off some or all of your exterior night lighting. Urban glow is a growing problem that negatively impacts sea turtles — especially hatchlings.
Clear the beach — If you keep beach chairs on the sand, pull them far away from where a turtle might nest, or a hatchling might head for the sea. If you’re a private club member, ask your management to pull chairs and cabanas off the sand at night. Same with beachfront condos with communal beach equipment.
Watch the dogs — Dogs aren’t allowed on beaches in Palm Beach County except in designated areas. Service dogs are another exception. All dogs should be controlled so no nests are dug out or holes left behind for hatchlings to fall into. Keep an eye on the kiddos as well.
Stay off the beach — If you are on the beach after dark, carry only a red light and stay quiet. If you see a turtle coming ashore, keep your distance and do not disturb her. No camera flashes. Turtles are easily frightened by light and noise and may return to the water without nesting — sometimes aborting their eggs.
Light no bonfires — These create a double whammy: light and noise on the beach, plus holes in the sand. Save those for the cool winter months.
Slow down — If you’re a boater, keep your eyes open for turtles during mating season. They’ll often be at the surface and easy to miss if you’re driving fast. Hitting a large turtle is not good for your boat, and can be deadly for one of our marine friends. Remember, rescue and rehab will be difficult in our area this summer.
Please be aware and considerate as the miraculous circle of life takes place over the next several months just steps from our front doors.
To learn more on how you can help, search for sea turtles at myfwc.com.
Mary Kate Leming — Editor