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Sea Turtles from a Professional Point of View

by jughandle

Sea Turtles and amphibians, like frogs have been a topic on this blog more than once.  Just as the miners once carried birds into the mines with them to forewarn of dangerous conditions we can be forewarned of pollution and problems in our ocean waters by Sea Turtles.

We are honored to have a guest author, Richard Fowlkes, join us today to describe the plight of the Seas Turtle and the efforts of a group of volunteers in Walton County Florida.  Thank you Richard and the group at South Walton Turtle Watch- jughandle


About the Author


Richard scans the beach for signs of turtle tracks

Richard scans the beach for signs of turtle tracks

Richard started his career as a photographer, covering events in Athens GA where he attended the University of Georgia.  Later Richard worked for several different newspapers and retired a few years ago as a Photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  Richard and his wife Karen moved to Blue Mountain Beach, Florida where Richard caught the turtle bug and became a strong advocate for the preservation or our Sea Turtles.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of assisting Richard on a Turtle watch on the beach at night.  It easily changed my prespective on what is important for our planet.


About the Story


Richard put this story together from information he gathered both first hand and from various other sites such as the Sea Turtle Conservancy site,  the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service site, National Geographic site, and others.  All of the photos used are courtesy of South Walton Turtle Watch.



SWTW is a group of dedicated volunteers, led by Sharon Maxwell, who are on the Walton County beaches in the Florida panhandle at dawn each day from May through October looking for signs that a turtle has crawled up on the beach during the night. We are located roughly between Panama City Beach and Destin. We work together with U. S. Fish and Wildlife and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision.
We don’t have lots of sea turtles that nest in this area, in fact until last year we averaged less than 36 nests a year over the 23 miles of beach we monitor. That’s only about 1.5 nests per mile over the course of 6 months. We have volunteers who have walked for years and never experienced the excitement of finding a nest, however we have others who have found two nests in one day. You just never know. But we feel what we do is vital to their survival.
We have four species of sea turtles that nest on these beaches and the most common is the loggerhead sea turtle. The loggerhead sea turtles that nest here are a genetically distinct subspecies; they only nest here and if they die off they will be gone forever. That’s because most sea turtles go back to the beach on which they were born to nest when they become sexually mature. It would be uncommon for loggerheads that weren’t born here to come here to nest. So if these turtles die off they would likely be gone from this area.
All of the sea turtles that nest here are listed as either threatened, endangered or critically endangered. If man doesn’t do a better job looking out for the environment we will loose these creatures that have been around since the age of dinosaurs. They will become extinct.

What is extinction?


A plant or animal becomes extinct when the last living individual of its species dies, causing it to vanish from the earth forever. If there is ever a time when the last green turtle on earth dies, then never again will this magnificent creature grace our world.Species have been going extinct for millions of years; it is a natural part of the evolutionary process. For example, most of the species that existed during the time of dinosaurs have perished. Many probably went extinct because of sudden geological or climatic changes — possibly because of a large volcanic eruption or because of a giant meteor hitting the earth. Today, however, species are going extinct because of abrupt changes brought about by humans. Habitat destruction, pollution and overconsumption are causing species to decline at a rate never before seen in history. This loss of species is eroding the diversity of life on earth, and a loss of diversity can make all life vulnerable.

Major ecological effects of sea turtle extinction


1. Sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are one of the very few animals to eat sea grass. Like normal lawn grass, sea grass needs to be constantly cut short to be healthy and help it grow across the sea floor rather than just getting longer grass blades. Sea turtles and manatees act as grazing animals that cut the grass short and help maintain the health of the sea grass beds. Over the past decades, there has been a decline in sea grass beds. This decline may be linked to the lower numbers of sea turtles.
Sea grass beds are important because they provide breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Without sea grass beds, many marine species humans harvest would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain. The reactions could result in many more marine species being lost and eventually impacting humans. So if sea turtles go extinct, there would be a serious decline in sea grass beds and a decline in all the other species dependant upon the grass beds for survival. All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.
2. Beaches and dune systems do not get very many nutrients during the year, so very little vegetation grows on the dunes and no vegetation grows on the beach itself. This is because sand does not hold nutrients very well. Sea turtles use beaches and the lower dunes to nest and lay their eggs. Sea turtles lay around 100 eggs in a nest and lay between 2 and 7 nests during the summer nesting season. Along a 20 mile stretch of beach on the east coast of Florida sea turtles lay over 150,000 lbs of eggs in the sand. Not every nest will hatch, not every egg in a nest will hatch, and not all of the hatchlings in a nest will make it out of the nest. All the unhatched nests, eggs and trapped hatchlings are very good sources of nutrients for the dune vegetation, even the left over egg shells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients.Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems helps to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion. As the number of turtles declines, fewer eggs are laid in the beaches, providing less nutrients. If sea turtles went extinct, dune vegetation would lose a major source of nutrients and would not be as healthy and would not be strong enough to maintain the dunes, resulting in increased erosion. Once again, all parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.Sea turtles are part of two ecosystems, the beach/dune system and the marine system. If sea turtles went extinct, both the marine and beach/dune ecosystems would be negatively affected. And since humans utilize the marine ecosystem as a natural resource for food and since humans utilize the beach/dune system for a wide variety of activities, a negative impact to these ecosystems would negatively affect humans.
SWTW tracks, marks, monitors and evaluates sea turtle nests on the beautiful beaches of South Walton. We keep track of a wide variety of statistics, including the species that crawl out of the water. We can tell from experience what species crawled up on the beach by looking at the tracks left behind. We document the width of the track to get an idea of the size of the turtle. We determine if there is really a nest or if it is just a false crawl. A false crawl is where a turtle came up and went back into the water without laying eggs. After a nest hatches we determine the success rate of the nest. We are also responsible for documenting sea turtles that have died and washed up on our beaches.
A loggerhead false crawl on a beach in South Walton.
loggerhead tracks
Sharon’s first experience with sea turtles in South Walton was when she walked for Grayton Beach State Park rangers in 1993. The next year she and a friend explored nests that they discovered or that were reported to them. Later that year they attended a panhandle sea turtle meeting and reported there were 25 nests on our beaches. Officials felt Sharon was mistaken because they believed sea turtles did not nest on these beaches. None had ever been reported. But Sharon was right.
In 1995, with the help of U. S. Fish and Wildlife, she and her team began walking the beaches of South Walton looking for signs of sea turtle crawls and nests. In 2000 SWTW was named the Conservation Group of the Year by the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Today Sharon and South Walton Turtle Watch, under her direction, are permitted to walk and conduct activities on these beaches authorized by a permit issued by the state of Florida. There are 25 walkers on that permit. Those individuals are permitted to do all of the activities required in monitoring the sea turtles. In addition there are generally another 35 to 40 walkers who are permitted to walk the roughly 23 miles of beaches and report what they find to one of four area coordinators.
All of the beaches must be walked everyday, seven days a week, rain or shine, during the sea turtle nesting season that runs from May 1st to October 31st. Walkers must be on the beach just after dawn for a variety of reasons. Tracks are easier to see in the early morning light where light shines on the beach at a low angle. If a nest is found it must be marked and if additional work needs to be done at the site the work must be complete by 9 a.m. So an early start is vital, especially on some stretches of beach where a person might be required to walk a long distance. In addition beach vendors are not allowed to set up on the beach until 8 a.m. or after any given section of beach has been cleared by SWTW. We are sensitive to their need to get their work done early so we try to get our work done as soon as possible.
Because the sea turtles that nest on our beaches are either endangered or threatened species it is a federal offense for anyone not permitted to disturb, touch, take, possess, harm or pursue any of these sea turtles, turtle nests and/or eggs. Individuals found in violation can be fined as much as $100,000 and can be sentenced to up to one year in prison. Citizens should always keep a distance from a sea turtle on the beach as they can be easily frightened, which can cause them to abort their nesting attempt.
Walkers look for crawls or turtle tracks on the beach that indicate a female sea turtle has crawled out of the water with the intention of digging a nest and laying eggs. It’s just about the only reason sea turtles leave the water. After a baby sea turtle hatches and makes its way from a nest to the water, most sea turtles never set foot on land again except when as an adult, a female comes ashore to lay eggs. One exception is the Eastern Pacific green turtle, which will take to land to bask in the sun. Occasionally seen sunbathing alongside seals and albatrosses, it is one of the few marine turtles known to leave the water other than at nesting times.
The most common sea turtle to nest on the beaches of South Walton is the loggerhead sea turtle. The next most common species to nest here is the green sea turtle, an endangered species, but their nesting numbers here are far fewer than the loggerhead. Two other species nest here but only on rare occasions. They are the Kemp’s Ridley and the Leatherback.
The beaches of South Walton are only one of a very few beaches in Florida where all four of these species have nested in the same year. That’s something we are proud of.
Loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, generally grow to about 2.5 to 3.5 feet in length and up to about 250 to 375 pounds but specimens of more than 1,000 pounds have been found, making them the largest of all hard-shelled turtles. They are the most abundant of all the marine turtle species in U.S. waters. But persistent population declines due to pollution, shrimp trawling, and development in their nesting areas, among other factors, have kept this wide-ranging seagoer on the threatened species list since 1978. Their enormous range encompasses all but the most frigid waters of the world’s oceans but they seem to prefer coastal habitats. They are primarily carnivores, munching jellyfish, conchs, crabs, and even fish, but will eat seaweed and sargassum occasionally. Females generally mature between 20 and 34 years of age depending on a variety of factors such as habitat, food source availability, genetics and overall health of the animal. They will often return, sometimes over thousands of miles, to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. They usually nest at intervals of 2 to 4 years, laying 3 to 6 nests per season, approximately 12 to 14 days apart. They have an estimated lifespan of more than 50 years. The loggerhead turtles that nest along our beaches are a genetically distinct subspecies that nest only here.
A loggerhead sea turtle nesting on the beaches of South Walton. This is a rare citing as they normally nest at night.
loggerhead on beach
Green sea turtles generally grow to 3 to 4 feet in length and weigh from 240 to 420 pounds but the largest ever found was 5 feet in length and weighted 871 pounds. The turtle is named not for the color of its shell, which is normally brown or olive depending on its habitat, but for the greenish color of its skin. Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and algae. Juvenile green turtles, however, will also eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish, worms, aquatic insects and sponges. Green turtles are listed as an endangered species, and one subpopulation is listed as critically endangered. They have been thought to nest about every 2 years, nesting between 3 to 5 times per season. They live to be about 80 years old.
The Kemp’s ridley is smallest of the four species and the most endangered sea turtle in the world. This small turtle, which grows to about 2 feet in length and to about 70 to 108 pounds, often leaves a very light or vague track in the sand, tracks that can be easy to miss if you are not paying close attention. In 1947 an amateur film showed some 40,000 female Kemp’s ridley turtles nesting in Mexico in a single day. Today, it is estimated that only about 1,000 breeding females exist worldwide. Their perilous situation is attributed primarily to the over-harvesting of their eggs during the last century. Found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, but also as far north as Nova Scotia, they prefer shallow waters, where they dive to the bottom to feed on crabs, which are their favorite food, and other shellfish. They also eat jellyfish, and occasionally munch on seaweed and sargassum. They may live to be 50 years old. Females aren’t sexually mature until about ten to twelve years of age. They nest every 1 to 3 years and may lay 2 to 3 clutches of eggs each season. Highly migratory animals, they often travel hundreds of miles to reach their nesting beach, usually the same beach they hatched from. One thing that makes the Kemp’s ridley stand out is that they often nest during the daytime where most sea turtles nest at night.
On the other hand the leatherback is an incredibly large species of sea turtle, the largest in the world. Generally they grow to about 4 to 6 feet in length weighing 660 to 1,100 pounds but they can grow to be almost 10 feet long and reach a weight exceeding 2,000 pounds. The leatherback lacks a hard shell. Its carapace is large, elongated and flexible with 7 distinct ridges running the length of the animal. The shell is composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by thousands of tiny bone plates. They were once prevalent in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic but their populations are rapidly declining in many parts of the world. Still they are the most widely distributed of all sea turtles, found world wide with the largest north and south range of all the sea turtle species. It is believed their lifespan is about 45 years. Leatherbacks undertake the longest migrations between breeding and feeding areas of any sea turtle, averaging 3,700 miles each way. In some parts of the world eggs are often taken by humans from nests to be consumed for subsistence or as aphrodisiacs. Leatherbacks have delicate, scissor-like jaws and feed almost exclusively on jellyfish. Leatherbacks, like other sea turtles, also can die if they ingest floating plastic debris mistaken for their favorite food. Some individuals have been found to have almost 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of plastic in their stomachs. They nest at intervals of 2 to 3 years though recent research has indicated they can nest every year. They nest between 4 to 7 times per season, with an average of 10 days between nesting.
The most dangerous time of a turtle’s life is when it makes the journey from nest to sea. This usually happens under the cover of darkness. Multiple predators, including ghost crabs, birds, fox and raccoons voraciously prey on hatchlings during this short scamper. Their numbers are also reduced by boats, boat propeller accidents, fishnet-caused drowning, shrimping net drownings and many fall victim to longline fishing lines. And then there is the destruction of their nesting grounds by human encroachment.
It is vital that all lights along the beach are shielded so they are not visible from the beach. Walton County has a wildlife ordinance that forbids lights that shine on the beach.
The light reflected off the water from the sky at night guides them to the sea. When other lights are present those lights disorient baby sea turtles and often even adult sea turtles, causing turtles to loose track of where the water is and how to get back to the water. Baby sea turtles lost on the beach or in the dunes when the sun comes up will cook in the sun and die. In addition babies stuck during daylight hours are susceptible to more predators. 
A baby sea turtle searches for the water.
baby sea turtle find its way
It is also important that people don’t leave things on the beach at night. Walton County has a Leave No Trace ordinance that forbids leaving things behind overnight. Chairs, umbrellas, tents, floats, toys and other items can both get in the way of a sea turtle attempting to find a place to nest, causing it to retreat to the water and those same items can keep a newly hatched baby sea turtle from getting to the Gulf at all. Just slowing down a baby sea turtle as it makes a dash to the water may give a predator, like a ghost crab, a chance to capture and kill a baby sea turtle.
Nesting sea turtles in our area face pressures that nesting sea turtles in many other parts of the state do not face. Nesting happens here during the prime tourist season when there are lots of people on the beach, day and night. There are lots of lights on and there is lots of activity. All of these activities can cause problems for nesting sea turtles.
Holes dug on the beach during the day time should be filled in when you leave the beach at the end of the day for the same reason things shouldn’t be left on the beach. They can lead to the death of rare and endangered sea turtles. It is estimated that only between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 4,000 survive from hatching to adulthood.
SWTW also works to education people about sea turtles. SWTW provides a variety of items to the public through the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC), we have turtle teaching kits in every elementary school in Walton County and one in Okaloosa County. We have made presentations at the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center, we frequently have educational displays at events and fairs held throughout the county. We provide educational DVDs to a variety of communities and organizations. And we hand out sea turtle coloring books and other literature to interested individuals.
In addition SWTW is working to obtain and provide flashlights that emit red light. We know that some people love to use flashlights on the beach at night. Unfortunately those traditional flashlights can disorientate sea turtles, but since sea turtles do not see red light as readily as they do white light, flashlights that emit red light are safer to use on the beach. You can learn more about this here, <http://www.euroturtle.org/threats/photo.htm> or here, <http://www.travelbelles.com/2011/05/loggerhead-sea-turtles-turtlesafe-flashlight/>.
We also work to continually educate ourselves by attending annual international sea turtle symposiums, state sea turtle permits holders meetings and regional sea turtle training classes.
The thrill of working with these amazing creatures is something to experience. Sharon says today, all these years after she started, she still gets just as excited when she finds a nest as she did when she found those first nests. Every year we are looking for new turtle walkers. It’s a fun thing to do and a great time to be on the beach. Some people just walk one day a week, others two, three or more days. Check out our Facebook page and Like us to keep up with what’s going on with sea turtles in our wonderful part of the world. You can also lean more about what is happening on our webpage which is located here, <http://southwaltonturtlewatch.org>.
And finally, why care about sea turtles?
Much can be learned about the condition of the planet’s environment by looking at sea turtles. They have existed for over 100 million years, and they travel throughout the world’s oceans. Suddenly, however, they are struggling to survive — largely because of things people are doing to the planet’s oceans and beaches. But what does this mean for the human species?
We can make a difference. All of us working together can improve things for sea turtles. We can insure their survival. South Walton Turtle Watch, like other sea turtles conservation groups, works hard to insure sea turtles do well and prosper. But the turtles need your help too. Please join us and do your part.
It is possible that a world in which sea turtles cannot survive may soon become a world in which humans struggle to survive. If, however, we learn from our mistakes and begin changing our behavior, there is still time to save sea turtles from extinction. In the process, we will be saving one of the earth’s most mysterious and time-honored creatures. We might just be saving ourselves too.
Last year we had a record high 97 nests. No one is sure why the numbers were up so high last year but we all excited to see what’s in store for us in 2013. May will be here soon and we’re ready.
Richard Fowlkes

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