A Guide to Proper Protocol for Nesting and Hatching Sea Turtles
Allow me to paint a picture. You are strolling on the beach. Stars are twinkling in the evening sky, well, at least what you can see of the stars. The seashore is lit up with nightlife; all the hotels are full of light that is bright and white, all the clubs are blaring music and neon lights—such a fun atmosphere. Then you come across this spot in the sand that looks like it is erupting. You see hundreds of objects coming out of the hole. You walk closer to get a better look, and you see that they are sea turtles!! Baby sea turtles! You gasp in excitement and run up and start holding one because it is just so cute! Grab your phone and start shining your camera and flash on it; you grabbed a few photos because this is social media worthy. Maybe after seeing them struggle to try and make their journey to the ocean but keep getting turned around, you decide to help them. Trying to be a good citizen.
A loggerhead hatchling begins its journey towards the ocean (Image courtesy of Mary Carrieri)
This happens a lot more than most people know. It seems like it would not be such a big deal, and it is okay because you are only one person helping and handling them, but that is what everyone else has said before you. I know it is hard, we see these cute babies struggling, and we want to help. However, this is an important journey for these guys. This journey helps them imprint where they need to return to lay their own eggs when they mature. If you do want to offer a helping hand, you can help by creating a barrier with your feet, being careful to not step on them, and let them use your foot as a guide down to the ocean; this also protects them from predators that might be nearby hoping to have them as a snack. If that still is not working at this moment, you can turn them around, only turn them around, and let them do the rest of the legwork out to sea. The important thing is to let them make their way and not let them get too tired and dehydrated before entering the longer part of their journey, the ocean. This is where they will swim about 60 miles out to hide under the Sargassum floats (large brown seaweed (a type of algae) that floats in island-like masses and never attaches to the seafloor) to hide and grow.
Now, what are we going to do about those pesky lights? Lights confuse the sea turtles. Sea turtles look for the moon’s shimmering light on the water to guide them out to sea. The shore lights look a lot like the bright moon and confuses them, and they will get turned around and start heading back up to the shore. If you do come across a “boil,” this is the term used for a hatching sea turtle nest, and see them getting confused with the lights to guide them back to the ocean with your flashlight or cell phone light, this will help them use that light source as a guide than the shore lights. If you find yourself staying at an onshore beach house, please follow the “lights out” protocols. These are protocols that beaches have set in place during nesting and hatching season for loggerhead turtles. This season runs from May to October from dusk to dawn. During this time frame, all shore lights need to be turned off, shielded, or redirected not to face the ocean. If you see someone not following the ”lights out” protocols, please call DNR and let them know. If you do find yourself in need of some light on the beach during your stroll, please use a red-light flashlight. Alternatively, create one of your own by coloring your camera’s flash with a red marker that you can wipe off later.
A sea turtle nest cordoned by the DNR (image courtesy of Mary Carrieri)
Oh, now what if you are one of the lucky few that discovers a nest before it gets marked off? Maybe you saw the mother turtle nesting. Maybe you saw a mound of dirt and what looks to be flipper tracks, but the first thing is not to disturb the nest. Next is to call DNR and let them know what part of the beach you have found the nest so they can come and properly mark it off. Also, if you are ever on a stroll on the beach and see four dowels and yellow tape or orange tape marking off a square or triangle in the sand, stay away. This is where a mother turtle has laid her nest, and the proper authorities have marked it off to keep inventory and let others know to stay away.
Every beachgoer can take a few more preventable measures to ensure a successful nesting and hatching season. You can still have fun at the beach while protecting sea turtles. When enjoying your day at the beach and building sandcastles and digging holes, make sure you fill in all holes and tear down any sandcastles at the end of your visit. This leaves fewer obstacles for sea turtles coming to lay their eggs and for baby sea turtles to avoid during their long journey to the ocean. Make sure to take all trash, especially plastic, home with you or throw it away at the nearest trash receptacle bins. Always leave the beach the way you found it or better. If you see any trash along the way, be sure to pick it up to help these beautiful creatures on your walk back to the car.
A loggerhead turtle hatchling makes its way towards the sea (Image courtesy of Mary Carrieri)
Mary Carrieri is a guest writer and virtual volunteer with MarineBio.