What is life like for our sea turtle friends?
Sea turtle life can be told best by the numbers. Th ere are seven species, and a few are endangered or threatened while most are vulnerable. Th ese mysterious reptiles can live up to 80 years, which is remarkable given their survival rates from nest to maturity. Each species of sea turtle has certain characteristics that set it apart, but they all share a few things in common.
- In South Walton County, turtles nest from May 1 to Oct. 31.
- Mothers come onto the beach overnight and spend several hours preparing their nests, laying their eggs and concealing their nests.
- The egg chamber, which is a cylindrical hole the turtle digs with her back flippers, can hold anywhere from 50 to 200 eggs depending on the species and the maturity of the mother. Th e eggs look almost exactly like Ping-Pong balls.
- Once the mother has laid all her eggs, she uses her flippers to throw sand and hide the chamber. She then begins her trip back to the water. She won’t return to check on the nest once she has finished it, so the hatchlings are on their own. Most nests in our area hatch in about 45 to 55 days, depending on species and atmospheric conditions. A turtle’s gender is determined by the temperature of the egg during incubation, so a few degrees warmer or cooler can have a serious influence on the gender ratio of the hatchlings.
- One hundred percent of sea turtles nest on land. Before they begin laying eggs, females will swim through thousands of miles of ocean only to come back and nest within a few miles of where they were born. From a conservation standpoint, this has benefits because we know that clean beaches and dunes support nests, but overdevelopment confuses the mother and makes it more likely she won’t nest that year.
- At best, only about 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will live to maturity, so each one is precious.
- Females begin laying eggs at about age 25. Once hatched, the males never return to the shore.
- Most species live between 50 and 100 years.
We must be good friends to the turtles. It’s important for humans to understand, respect, and protect these fascinating creatures by practicing proper beach etiquette. If you are fortunate enough to see baby sea turtles emerge from the nest and follow the moonlight into their Gulf home, be thankful and cautious. Make sure the beach is as dark as possible, as hatchlings can easily get disoriented by artificial light sources. Keep beach-facing house lights off . Leave no holes on the beach (sandcastles/games), keep the sand litter and clutter-free, keep a reasonable distance from marked nests, and use only red light flashlights or cover flashlights in red cellophane.
Volunteers from South Walton Turtle Watch patrol the beach each morning at dawn to check for new nesting or other activity. The good news is that the South Walton Turtle Watch team identified over 50 nests in 2019, so there are lots of opportunities to watch hatchlings.
If you miss the opportunity to see baby turtles, you can still visit adults at Gulf World in Panama City Beach. Go to the South Walton Turtle Watch Website at SouthWaltonTurtleWatch.org, where you can learn about local efforts, watch videos and even download and print sea turtle coloring book.
Written by Sallie Paris