Turtle nesting season has officially begun. Every year around May 1, thousands of sea turtles climb out of the water and onto the beaches of Florida. The massive, endangered animals (including green, loggerhead and Kemp's ridley turtles) haul themselves away from the water, dig deep into the sand, and lay their eggs. Volunteers will spend the next two months monitoring the nests until the eggs hatch and tens of thousands of newly born turtles emerge and attempt to return to the sea.
May 1 also marks the beginning of turtle tourism, as thousands if not millions of people descend on Florida for a rare chance to see these incredible animals, either as they are laying their eggs or as the hatchlings emerge. It's a great opportunity to see sea turtles, but Florida residents and tourists need to take care not to disturb these creatures, which are protected under state and federal law.
"We see a lot of disturbance of turtles by people who venture out without any training," says David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. This can prevent turtles from laying their eggs, can harm the animals, or can cause hatchlings to become confused and die before they make it to the ocean.
The most important thing to consider is not to disturb nesting turtles. According to these tips from the conservancy's website, it's important to give adult sea turtles plenty of room so they feel comfortable enough to lay their eggs. Don't try to touch them and stay out of their line of sight so you don't scare females as they try to nest. If you encounter a nest — which will probably be clearly marked by volunteers or conservation officials — don't touch any eggs because you can damage them or transmit bacteria, which can prevent them from hatching.
Another important thing to consider is lighting. Many resorts, hotels and other businesses have adopted the use of turtle-safe lighting, which has two important purposes. First, these softer lights — which operate in specific yellow-red frequencies — don't discourage adult females from nesting. Second, they help ensure hatchling survival. Without these new LED lights, thousands of hatchlings will die as they move toward man-made lights instead of the sea.
Godfrey suggests that tourists visiting Florida keep these lighting needs in mind. "Keep your hotel drapes closed and turn off your lights when you leave the room," he says. If you're on the beach at night, don't take a conventional flashlight, as these can disturb or attract the turtles. Instead, look for trained sea-turtle guides who take small groups onto the beach to see the turtles in safe conditions. These expert-led walks, Godfrey says, are often free or included in your resort fees. If you bring your camera along with you, make sure your flash is off, as even those brief lights can disturb the turtles.
Luckily, sea turtle populations have increased in recent years thanks to several decades of intense conservation work. "Over the past five years, we've actually seen dramatic increases with green turtle nesting in Florida," Godfrey says. So take advantage of that success and enjoy the sight of a sea turtle. It's something you may never forget.
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Inset photo of sign by Robert S. Donovan/flickr