In the scope of Florida's 2,276 miles of shore, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is a blip. Just 20 miles long, it was set aside in 1991 specifically for turtles after declines in the populations of all local species had crashed from a combination of pressures. People disturbed nests on beaches (sometimes poaching eggs, sometimes just crushing the nests) and turtle meat was also very popular. It's the only federal land set aside for the animals.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 made it a crime to kill, buy or eat endangered turtles and the refuge created a safe place for them to lay their eggs in a stretch of beachfront that's a favorite spot for various species.
Lou Ehrhart, a University of Central Florida researcher, has been counting sea turtle nests in the refuge area since the 1980s when 30-40 nests were found each year. In 2012, there were more than 18,000 loggerhead nests, and in 2013, more than 13,000 green sea turtle nests. Ehrhart told WFME: “As a scientist I have to be a little careful about how I throw the word ‘miracle’ around, but yes I agree in this case it is really quite extraordinary.” Why did the recovery take so long?
You may know that sea turtles can live very long lives — like humans, healthy individuals can live to be 100 years old or more. Unlike humans, turtles don't reach sexual maturity until 20, or even later. So the turtle recovery we are seeing today is the result of policies and protections made decades ago. It makes sense that if the refuge was founded in 1991, turtle populations are finally rebounding now, based on their life cycle.
You can see from the published data that while populations vary from year to year, overall there has been a tremendous increase in the number of turtle nests in the last few years. Green sea turtles have led the recovery, with leatherbacks and loggerheads (shown in the image at the top of the page) following suit.
If you are in Florida in June or July, you can actually take a limited-visitor guided tour at the refuge to see the sea turtles laying their eggs.
If you or your kids have never seen a sea turtle digging a burrow and laying eggs, I can tell you, it's a pretty magical experience. I've been lucky enough to have seen it twice and both times I shed some tears. There's just something about the quiet labor of the turtles, who lay their eggs — and never see their offspring again — that's incredibly profound.