A 2005 fossil find in Queensland, Australia, indicated that sea turtles lived more than 110 million years ago. Even centuries ago, sea turtles roamed our oceans by the millions. In the last 100 years, however, their numbers have been greatly reduced and today all seven species of sea turtles are in danger of global extinction. During the summer months, there are approximately 50,000 sea turtles in Florida, making our state the most important nesting area in the United States.
Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water, coming ashore only to nest. Like salmon, sea turtles will return to the same nesting grounds at which they were born. Nesting season begins in April and hatching continues until late October. A female can lay several nests during one season and only nests every two or three years. The hard process of nesting takes hours. The mother sea turtle uses her back flippers to dig a hole and deposits 75-130 leathery eggs, each the size of a ping-pong ball. The turtle disguises the nest by flinging sand over it. Once she leaves the nest, she never returns.
After incubating for two months (55-60 days), the hatchlings break out of their shells and thrash about together causing the walls of the nest to collapse and the bottom of the hole to rise. Once near the surface, the hatchlings wait until the sand temperature cools to emerge, thus the reason why most emerge after dark. Once out of the nest, the turtles will try to scramble to the water and swim offshore where they will live for several years in seaweed beds drifting along the Gulf Stream.
Few baby sea turtles make it to the water, however, as even the slightest bit of artificial lighting along the beach disorients them. Newborn sea turtles instinctively move in the brightest direction, ideally to follow the light of the moon toward the water. Artificial lights cause them to crawl in the wrong direction. Even a single light bulb left shining on a beachfront patio can confuse the hatchlings, so Sanibel has implemented stringent restrictions on beach lighting – or a “dark-skies ordinance” — to help baby sea turtles to make their way safely to the sea. Other rules are in place that make it illegal to interfere with sea turtle nesting and hatching in any way.
How You Can Help
- Keep outside lights – especially those on your lanai — off during turtle season from April through October.
- Make sure to remove chairs, umbrellas, toys and other gear from the beach each night and fill in all holes that you dig. These obstacles may cause a “false crawl” where a female turtle returns to the water without laying her eggs. They may also block a hatchling’s route to the water causing it to remain on the beach and dehydrate.
- Do not use flashlights or take flash photography at night on the beach.
- Stay clear of marked nesting areas. Do not allow children or pets to disturb nesting turtles of hatchlings.
- If you happen to see a sea turtle, keep a respectful distance (at least 150 feet) and watch quietly. It is a rare experience and one to be treasured!