Hurricanes and sea turtles
By Aubry Forsyth
Hurricanes are destructive forces of nature that impact humans and marine life, including sea turtles. Florida is no stranger to the devastation that hurricanes can cause. These storms impact sea turtles in many ways, from getting washed back in the strong tides, to an increase in plastic pollution and other floating debris brought to shore, and even habitat loss.
Hurricane season happens to coincide with sea turtle nesting season. The official hurricane season lasts from June through November, and sea turtle nesting season lasts from May through October here in Brevard County. In a typical nesting season, by the time hurricanes are advancing toward the Florida coast, many hatchling sea turtles have already emerged from their nests and are out in the ocean. Other nests are still incubating, and these nests tend to get washed out or flooded during hurricanes. Most of these do not survive. Sea turtle eggs require sand around them to incubate, and exposed eggs cannot withstand being tossed around.
Significant erosion to beaches caused by a hurricane also means less area, or habitat, for nesting sea turtles to deposit their eggs. However, hurricanes can also cause habitat loss in the ocean. Hatchling sea turtles swim to the Sargasso Sea, located about 20 miles offshore, where they stay throughout their first years. The sargassum seaweed creates floating mats that are a beneficial habitat for hatchling sea turtles, and loggerheads in particular. The mats provide plenty of food and shelter for the turtles. If a hurricane travels through this area, it can destroy this habitat and these post-hatchling sea turtles may be washed back to shore along with the sargassum seaweed beds. These post-hatchlings are commonly called washbacks. These young turtles are typically fatigued from trying to fight the strong tides, and they often require trained and authorized personnel to rescue them from the beach and bring them to the safety of a rehabilitation facility where they can regain their strength.
The extremely high and powerful tides of a hurricane often push plastic pollution and other floating debris onto and near the shoreline. This creates more obstacles for both hatchlings and nesting sea turtles. Hatchlings have enough to worry about with predators alone, but when you add large amounts of plastic debris to the shoreline, they often take longer to get to the water. This means more time for predators to take advantage of the helpless turtles. The plastic pollution also presents a problem for nesting adult sea turtles. Larger debris, such as chairs, buoys, and fishing gear (i.e. crab traps, nets, rope) are significant obstacles for nesting turtles. These large obstacles can make it impossible for the sea turtles to get to a nesting location and may lead to disorientation. The sea turtles will turn back into the water without laying their eggs on land. This is known as a false crawl. False crawls often occur when sea turtles become disoriented by obstacles such as debris, humans, or lights from buildings and residences along the shore.
Natural disasters like hurricanes can be devastating for both humans and marine life. Sea turtles in particular face many difficulties imposed on them by hurricanes, including getting washed back in the strong tides, an increase in plastic pollution and other floating debris brought to shore, and even habitat loss. It’s important to know that sea turtles and their nesting strategies are well adapted to hurricanes and their effects and have survived for more than 110 million years.
If you see stranded sea turtles on the beach, please call the STPS sea turtle emergency response line at 321-206-0646.