Sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 through October 31. The first sea turtle nest in Walton County is usually found the third week in May. These nests are found by walking the beach early in the morning and looking for tracks left by the female when she comes ashore to nest. The tracks look like large tractor tracks that begin and end at the water line.
Nests are also monitored after eggs have been laid. Once a nest’s eggs hatch it is excavated 72 hours later, and any hatchlings left in the nest are released to the open sea. Empty egg shells are counted, and all conditions of the nest cavity are reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The heart and soul of the South Walton Turtle Watch are the tireless, dedicated volunteers who walk the beach at dawn looking for tracks of sea turtles that came from the sea during the night to nest. Nests and false crawls are documented. Turtle Watch volunteers also monitor hatching nests, documenting the success rate.
Volunteers now include night walkers, monitoring potential lighting problems that cause lighting disorientation to hatchlings. Disorientation results in many hatchling deaths each year.
South Walton Turtle Watch needs your help. If you would like to walk the beach, or if you see a sea turtle, or sea turtle tracks, please call Sharon Maxwell at 897-5228, or call the Florida Marine Patrol, at (850) 233-5150).
Turtle watchers give turtles a helping hand
By Joyce Owen
“I’ve got a turtle,” Bob Veltri, South Walton Turtle Watch volunteer shouted as he scooped the first loggerhead from the nest, holding it gently in his gloved hand.
Al Murphy, second-in-command of the SWTW, brought a bucket of damp sand from the water’s edge. “Very gently put him in the bucket,” Murphy instructed.
The small group of volunteers, with Murphy and Leigh Vanderels guiding them, gathered round the bucket as the little sea turtle checked out his new surroundings.
Turtle Nest 5, located in Paradise by the Sea subdivision a half mile west of Rosemary Beach, hatched on Aug. 16. As part of the guidelines from the Department of Environmental Protection, the turtle watchers inspect each nest 80 days after it is laid, to determine what has happened in the nest. The dig was delayed one day because of heavy rains, but Monday night (Aug. 20) the volunteers came out.
Most volunteers will never see a turtle laying her eggs. Even Sharon Maxwell, the founder of the SWTW, has never made it to a site in time to see a nesting turtle.
But believing everyone should have a chance to see the hatchlings, Maxwell notifies every volunteer when a nest is about to be excavated, although not all digs are successful.
For a volunteer, this is the big reward. It is the reason they walk those countless early morning miles and endure the heat, the rain, the bugs and the tourists with all their questions. “A dig” is an opportunity to see the tiny turtles make their way to the gulf.
And on Monday night, a small group saw it happen.
Seeing a turtle
After Veltri successfully found the first turtle in Nest 5, he moved aside to allow volunteer Valerie Mount to carefully scoop small handfuls of sand from the ever-deepening hole.
Mount and her two daughters, Kirsten, 13 and Selina, 9, were at their first dig.
“Oh, no. Little turtle leftovers,” Mount cried as she brought up a small crusty object.
She was relieved when it crumbled and she saw that it was just a clump of sand.
“There’s two!” she exclaimed with joy, and scooped deeper to retrieve two more babies.
“Be careful,” Selina cautioned her mother.
“I’m not going to drop them,” she said as she carefully showed them to her daughters and then placed them in the bucket.
“They are loggerheads,” Murphy proclaimed after a quick check.
“I’ll do it at least once,” said Vanderels, a two-year volunteer as she put on gloves (another DEP requirement) and knelt beside the hole. “I just wanted to feel one (a turtle) again.”
“There’s a turtle,” said Selina, “Don’t squish it! Look, there’s a whole bunch of turtles,” her excitement was laced with unrestrained wonder and joy.
As the number of turtles in the bucket grew to 10, the tiny reptiles climbed over each other looking for a way out, the damp sand a temporary respite before being put to sea by the volunteers.
Veltri continued to carefully deepen the hole and remove discarded shells from the newly-hatched turtles. Then he found something different.
“There’s an egg, now what?” he asked in a voice much like that of a new father.
Murphy pointed to a spot beside the hole where soon, two piles were arranged, one for eggs and the other for discarded shells. A few of the eggs had a moldy look. Murphy explained it was the result of water in the nest.
“Here’s one just coming out (of his shell),” said April Hodges, a new volunteer who has been walking the beach from the Bay County line to Highpoint for two months.
“Now – just as far as I can feel … there are eggs,” she said.
To the volunteers who had moved eggs right after they were laid and had seen them all pink and glowing, these greenish-gray globes looked sickly. The volunteers were concerned about the viability of the eggs. But to Murphy’s experienced eyes, most of the eggs looked normal.
Nest 5 originally had 96 eggs. Twelve turtles had been found alive, including two that were still breaking out of their shells.
Murphy separated the two to allow them to make their way out of the shells. They quickly wriggled out of the eggs.
One still had yolk on his shell and Murphy worried that turtle might not be strong enough to survive if released that night.
Murphy counted the remaining eggs and determined 11 must have hatched on Aug. 16. As part of the DEP-required examination, Murphy cut open several eggs to inspect them. There were four infertile eggs and one was only partially developed, but the embryo was dead.
Murphy made notes for his records and then walked up and down the beach looking for just the right location – high enough to be protected from the water, with a fairly level path to the gulf – to relocate the nest.
Veltri and Murphy dug a new nest – a man-made nest – and moved the 68 remaining eggs from Nest 5. The nest will be checked every morning for signs of additional hatchings.
The one hatchling Murphy was worried about was buried in a separate shallow nest to be checked daily for activity.
Wait until dark
After the nest was dug, it was still too light to release the 11 live turtles, but no one left.
Murphy checked the lighting around the site. The houses above the bluff were mostly dark and would provide no distraction to the turtles.
Murphy pointed out Panama City Beach shining brightly in the distance, but it was too far away to distract this group of hatchlings.
At almost 8 p.m., there was only a sliver of moon in the night sky, but the faint glow of the fading sunset would guide the turtles to the water. Even though the volunteers’ eyes had adjusted to the darkness, it was almost too dark to see the turtles that were only an inch or two in diameter and covered in sand. Murphy told everyone to pick a turtle and watch to be sure it gets to the water.
They are off!
The little guys seemed to know what was expected and bravely crawled forward. But as they reached the water, a wave pushed them back onto the sand.
Legs flailed as they struggled, but the turtles persevered and moved forward again. They had a long trip ahead of them.
They will swim for 24 hours out into the Gulf to reach the sargassum weed that will provide food and protection.
The volunteers watched as the last turtle disappeared into the surf. Kirsten and Selina peered into the water the longest. They waded out to make sure every last turtle made it to the first sand bar.
It was a successful release, but this has been a disappointing year for South Walton’s turtles. By this time last year, 90 nests were laid. This year there are fewer than 30. Even in a good year, the odds are never good for a sea turtle. “Only one in 1,000 to 10,000 will make it,” said Vanderels.
The next few weeks will be busy for the volunteers as they inspect the rest of the nests on a timetable determined by DEP. Hopefully the weather, accompanied by heavy rains and high tides, will stay clear long enough to allow the remaining baby turtles to incubate in the warm white sands of SoWal.