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Magical moments happen on Florida beaches under starry summer nights and few people witness them. I’ve lived in Florida for more than 20 years and there are many must-do opens in a new windowFloridian experiences I’ve enjoyed. However, there are many I have not. One of those Florida bucket list experiences is witnessing a sea turtle nest hatching. But recently on Englewood Beach, I finally saw a sea turtle hatchling when I followed sea turtle patrol volunteers.
During the predawn hours of a slightly breezy August morning, I ventured to Englewood Beach on Manasota Key. I parked at the opens in a new windowwannaB inn where they currently offer $15 all-day parking for non-guests. The sky was steel gray in color. As the sun rose, dreamy pastel hues of pinks and blues colored the sky over the Intracoastal Waterway. The sun eventually rose above the mangroves indicating the day is ready to begin.
Coastal Wildlife Club, Guardians of Englewood Beach’s Sea Turtles
I met up with Karen Blackford who’s involved with the opens in a new windowFriends of Stump Pass Beach State Park, among other good things in the Englewood community. She introduced me to Carol and Gene McCoy, two sea turtle patrol volunteers with the opens in a new windowCoastal Wildlife Club. Carol serves as chair of the Friends of Stump Pass Beach State Park.
Each morning between mid-April through October, volunteers walk Charlotte County’s beaches in the early dawn hours. They look for turtle tracks emerging from the shoreline and leading up on the beach. This may indicate a nest was created. Beginning in early summer, they are seeking clues of a nighttime hatching, or a boil. I’m told when dozens of hatchlings emerge from a nest at once, it looks like a pot of water boiling over, which is why the term boil is used.
Loggerheads are the most common sea turtles nesting on these Southwest Florida beaches, although green turtles and Kemp’s ridley turtles have nested on local beaches. Leatherback and hawk’s bill are other species found in Florida.
When volunteers find a nest, they carefully survey it and mark it off by forming a triangle with three yellow, wooden stakes and orange tape. Each nest is documented and provided to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. It takes about 60 days for eggs to incubate.
Why Are They Digging in a Sea Turtle Nest?
On the morning’s agenda was excavation of two nests that hatched two days prior. Coastal Wildlife Club volunteers typically excavate nests two days following a hatch. They do this to document how many hatchlings emerged.
There was a semi-circle of seashells partially around an indentation in the sand and this marked a hatched nest. Volunteers carefully placed the shells two days prior. Carol’s gloved hands dug into the nest and scooped out eggshells that looked like busted, rubbery ping pong balls. Occasionally, she pulled out a round, unhatched egg which means it didn’t incubate.
Another volunteer named Karen lined eggshells into rows of 10. Once the nest was removed, contents were tallied and documented and provided to FWC. This nest yielded almost 80 eggs with a handful of unhatched eggs. All contents were placed back into the nest and then filled with sand. A row of whole and broken seashells was formed to indicate where the nest was.
The Nest Wasn’t So Empty
The second nest was unusually close to the first, only a few feet away. Carol pulled out eggshells, more ping pong ball like-eggs, and a common find, a loggerhead sea turtle hatchling!
Once hatchlings emerge together from a nest, they instinctively scurry towards the moonlight and into the ocean to begin another chapter of their life. Sometimes, straggler hatchlings are left in the nest which is 18″ – 22″ deep. This nest had evidence of about 100 eggs.
The hatchling was placed on the sand and began her journey to the Gulf of Mexico (I don’t know if it was a male or female). She looked like a windup toy as she struggled over the little mountains and canyons in the sand. When she reached the top of a small mountain, about half an inch tall, she looked stuck as her little legs spun round and round. But she somehow found the momentum to move forward.
After about 20 minutes, I watched as she reached the shoreline and without notice, Mother Nature quickly enveloped her in a puff of seafoam and welcomed the hatchling into her new home.
The survival rate of a sea turtle hatchling is one in a thousand. In about 25 – 35 years, she’ll return to Englewood Beach and lay her first nest for the next generation of sea turtles.
Do Your Part to Protect Sea Turtles
Sea turtle nesting season in Florida is mid-April through October, although they may nest earlier and hatch later. Tips for visiting Florida beaches this time of year:
- If you’re staying on the beach, turn your lights off or have turtle-friendly lights. This includes, not shining lights on turtles.
- When visiting the beach, pick up after yourself including bringing in beach chairs because these are obstacles and hazards.
- Play on the beach and dig all you want but fill in holes and knock down those sandcastles. These can be obstacles for nesting and hatchling sea turtles.
- Do not disturb or touch sea turtles or their nests. Observe them from a distance.
- If you see a sea turtle, no matter the size, in distress, dial *FWC on your cell phone or call FWC at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).
Note: The Coastal Wildlife Club has a permit to perform the work they do. DO NOT dig into a sea turtle nest, it is illegal and you will be punished by law enforcement.