Wrong way, hatchlings
By Angel Collins
I wasn’t sure how to start this article, but I guess it starts with stating what amazing creatures sea turtles are. Sea turtles are thought to be between 20 and 50 years old before they begin nesting. It varies by species of turtle and, like most things with sea turtles, we don’t know way more than we do know.
We do know that once they begin nesting, sea turtles come up onto the beaches to lay between two and 10 nests in a season. We also know that nesting turtles return to the beach where they themselves hatched; they often return within a few hundred feet of where they have previously nested. Some tagged nesting turtles have been identified on a beach at the same coordinates that they had nested at many years before. When you think of the changes in Florida’s beaches in the last 20-50 years, it is remarkable.
And so, the mystery of how these tiny newly hatched turtles can climb out of their shells and know which way to march off to the ocean to start their long lives is fascinating. Unfortunately, these tiny little hatchlings that follow mysterious centuries old ingrained directional triggers can also be led astray because of humans. So, with this article, I hope to introduce you to how to do things right, and to share some interesting aspects of sea turtles.
When hatchlings emerge, it is usually, but not always, at night. Numbers are higher on brighter full moon nights, but on dark nights with no moon, the turtles still hatch and find their way to the sea. The tiny hatchlings climb out of the nest and just seem to know where they are going. It is thought that the sun and the moon create light that is reflected off the water, and that is why they move quickly and surely to the sea. Don’t forget though, they are dodging crabs that would love to have them for breakfast and seagulls that swoop down and grab a hatchling in midstride. Dogs, raccoons and other prey can destroy an entire nest in no time. The hatchlings also must dodge castles and moats left behind by human beachgoers; please leave the beaches clean, dark, and flat. Long ago, when we weren’t here, they had much more nesting space and a long, smooth, even beach line. Now seawalls, condos, pools, and parking garages are on their beaches, making it more and more difficult for them.
Maybe the hatchlings hear the waves crashing and head toward the sound? Some studies are going on now about turtle hearing. It seems to make sense that perhaps they hear the water, particularly when the waves are rough and maybe they know to head to the beach because the sound of crashing wavecs is calling them. Hardly any studies exist about turtle hearing and communication, and as more information becomes available, we will be excited to learn about it.
We want as many hatchlings to make it to the sea as possible. So, here is how you can help: Always leave the beach clean, flat and dark.
As beaches are more and more crowded, hatchling disorientation continues to increase. Any visible lighting, whether from a building, roadway or flashlight, can cause hatchlings to head in the wrong direction and place them in danger. This disorientation puts them at increased danger from predators or even vehicle traffic, and they can often exhaust themselves by going the wrong direction and just not have the energy to make it to the sea.
The best way to help turtles is to share with everyone on the beach that it is Light Outs for Turtles from May 1 until Oct. 31, from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. All beachside properties need to close shades and pull blinds. Make sure your lights are in compliance with FWC sea turtle lighting guidelines. They recommend keeping fixtures mounted as low as possible so the light is focused in a small area, use the lowest wattage/lumens needed, and keep it shielded, which also focuses the light. Also, those out on the beach should not use flashlights, phones or other lighted devices.
Everyone loves turtles, and we can’t help but be thrilled when we see them. Please, remember if you are on the beach when a Mama comes up to nest, stop, get low to the ground, be still, let her find her place. If you are behind her back flippers, then once she is digging her body pit you can slowly back away with the least chance of disturbing her. If you are closer or she is facing you, if possible, just stay there and enjoy a moment most people don’t get to see. If you are walking on the beach when hatchlings emerge, stop, they are little and fast and most of them will find their way on their own. Be patient, very quiet and just know you are a very lucky person. If you have a camera or phone PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, set it to no flash before you get to the beach. Picking a red light on a phone or a red filter does NOT allow you to approach nesting turtles. When a red light is used during a guided turtle walk, it is done because of permits issues by FWC for named, trained permit holders with special lighting that always keep turtle safety first. Please remember, it is unlawful to harass, disturb or take sea turtles, any part of sea turtles or their eggs or to disturb their nests.
While fewer turtles may be laying new nests this time of year, hatchlings will be emerging for months to come. This is the reason for Lights Out through Oct. 31.
To report dead or injured sea turtles in Brevard County, call the STPS emergency response hotline at 321-206-0646. You may also call the state FWC commission, 1-800-404-3922, or any local law enforcement agency.
To report any suspected lighting violations, contact Brevard Code Enforcement at 321-633-2086.
More information can be found on the following links.