Safe Boating and Sea Turtles
By Kimberly Seidl
With the first day of summer now behind us, Floridians and visitors alike are flocking to the warming water for relaxation and sunburns. Rising temperatures are also a sign that it’s sea turtle nesting season, which officially began May 1 along Brevard’s Space Coast. Our beaches soon will host swarms of stampeding hatchlings. But, before this, adult sea turtles must survive the treacherous path between the open ocean and the shore. This is where your smart boater practices are essential.
Several species of sea turtles use Brevard’s beaches and Intracoastal Waterway, including the loggerhead, green, leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill. These animals begin their lives on our shores, live their juvenile years in our estuaries, then venture out into open ocean to one day return and begin the next generation.
Boat Strike Victims
Boaters need to be aware of the dangers they pose to sea turtles and other wildlife, and methods they can use to avoid injury. Most people think of manatees in regard to propeller injuries; however, sea turtles are regularly found in similar habitats and have a high incidence of boat-related injuries. Boat injuries account from more than 20 percent of sea turtle strandings. Accidents involving boat propellers and marine animals are known as boat strikes; these are described as blunt-force trauma or lacerations to the carapace (upper shell) or body. These injuries are often severe and can lead to loss of fins, amputation, cracked shells, and frequently, death.
A common injury among sea turtles is known as “bubble butt syndrome.” This occurs when a sea turtle is struck by the hull of a boat while at the surface to breathe. The air is forced into their body cavity preventing buoyancy control, resulting in the inability to dive and hunt. As humorous as the syndrome’s name sounds, victims of “bubble but”’ often spend the rest of their lives in a sea turtle hospital due to their inability to survive in the wild.
Disposing of waste while among an oceanic ecosystem is detrimental to the animals that call it home. Plastic straws, plastic bags and rubbery balloons pose an immediate threat as they perfectly mimic the largest sea turtle’s favorite snack: jellyfish. Sea turtles possess a sophisticated structure lining their throat known as papillae. These spiky-looking protrusions allow the animal to swallow meals, and expel seawater; however, this adaptation does not allow expulsion of foreign objects, like plastics, which then clog their digestive system resulting in death.
Stay within channel markers where the water is deepest, No shortcuts. Shallow water along a river will likely house a unique ecosystem of seagrasses. Propellers sit far below the surface and will shred a path through a field of seagrass known as prop scarring; the damage caused results in a slow process of regrowth, which may take a decade to restore. As many species of sea turtles are herbivorous (plant-eaters) they can regularly be found among these beds of submerged plants. The destruction of these habitats, which provide nursery areas to thousands of juvenile species and is the main food source to most sea turtles, results in a decline in health and population size.
Here’s how you can help
- Appoint a marine animal spotter while traveling near coral reef habitats in open ocean, seagrass beds in estuaries, and shorelines. As an air-breathing reptile, sea turtles are found near the surface of the water either to breathe or warm their cold bodies after a long night among the corals. Their dimly shaded shells are ideal for camouflage but make them difficult to see among the waves. Polarized sunglasses are a great tool to reduce glare on the water’s surface and enable you to see marine animals more easily.
- Adhere to all posted speed limits to ensure an animal is spotted with enough time to slow down and avoid injury. Place your engine in neutral when a sea turtle is spotted until you can be sure your paths will not cross.
- Follow all designated buoys through channels, No shortcuts. Straying into shallower water poses a great threat to grazing animals and their delicate seagrass ecosystem.
- Avoid dumping food, drink, and waste from your vessel. What’s yummy to you is dangerous to them. Single-use plastics are harmful to all species of marine life; sea turtles most commonly are impacted due to their unique diets.
If you are involved in an accidental collision or see an injured sea turtle, please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at (888) 404-3922 with your location and a description or photos of the animal. In Brevard County, please call the Sea Turtle Preservation Society’s emergency response line at (321) 206-0646.
Boater Safety Tips. The Turtle Hospital. Available at: http://www.turtlehospital.org/uncategorized/boater-safety-tips/
Responsible Boating Initiative. Loggerhead Marinelife Center. Available at: https://marinelife.org/conservation/rbi/
Sea Turtle – Safe Boating. Coastal Angler Magazine. Available at: https://coastalanglermag.com/sea-turtle-safe-boating/
How You Can Help Protect Marine Life From Boat Strikes. Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Available at: https://www.seewinter.com/help-protect-marine-life-boat-strikes/