Saving the sea turtles

When we first went walking on Ft. Lauderdale beach, coming home from dinner on Wednesday night, we found some areas that were marked off with posts and pink tape to keep people from crossing them. They were scattered up and down the beach, some close to the ocean and others in the dunes. My long beach walk on Thursday morning, while Robert attended the Society of Professional Journalists board meeting, revealed that these were sea turtle nests being watched over by a group called Sea Turtle Oversight Protection.

Sea turtle nests

When the mama turtles come up on the beach to nest in the spring, this organization observes them and, once the females have left their deposits in the sand, sets posts and pink plastic tape around them. Each nest is numbered and given a sign that warns people not to disturb the nest. 

S.T.O.P. signs

The female turtle comes ashore at night to lay her eggs. She digs an indentation in the sand big enough for her body and then uses her powerful back flippers to dig a deep hole for her eggs. After depositing between 50 and 200 eggs, she covers them over and returns to the sea, leaving the eggs untended. When it's time to hatch, the babies work together to break out of the nest - usually at night. Although they instinctively head for the ocean en masse, they become distracted by bright lights in populated areas and head in the wrong direction, leaving them exposed to predators once daylight comes and to traffic if they happen across a road.

S.T.O.P. volunteers monitor the beaches in nesting season, marking and numbering the nests. The group keeps track of where they are so that volunteers can return when it's time for the hatchlings to emerge - generally about 45-50 days later. They watch the nests each night so that they can help any disoriented hatchlings find their way to their natural habitat - the ocean. They also look for tracks in the sand and attempt to count the number of trails indicating that hatchlings made their way to the water. That's what John was doing - the volunteer in this picture.

The variety of different tracks in the sand can make this a challenging task. There's one set of sea turtle tracks going right to left in the next photo. The tracks going from top to bottom are from shore birds.

John was kind enough to show me what what he was seeing. This next photo has trails from three hatchlings that may have made it all the way to the ocean.

I think John was not very happy with his count that day - 39 trails. The S.T.O.P. volunteers generally hope to help a bigger number of hatchlings from each nest get to their native habitat. The odds for hatchling survival are not very high even in nature - perhaps 1 in 1,000. It would take more than 39 swimmers from each nest to ensure survival of this threatened animal.

Other S.T.O.P. volunteers could not conceal their disappointment at losing so many from this nest. They had been watching the nest for eight hours the previous night and said they left 15 minutes before the hatchlings emerged. 

Because the nest was so close to a parking lot, it was inevitable that many of the hatchlings would move toward the bright street lights instead of the (relative) safety of the ocean.

According to S.T.O.P.'s website, Ft. Lauderdale Beach is heavily monitored - volunteers had filed 705 hatch reports there by Sept. 24, covering about 60% of the 52,000 hatchlings they have counted so far this year. Of the Ft. Lauderdale hatchling crew, S.T.O.P. reports that 39% were disoriented.

Our convention hotel - the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort - says it has helped in the rescue effort by installing sea-turtle-friendly lighting, and the S.T.O.P. website seems to support Marriott's claim. Most of the nests that have hatched so far this year on the beach in front of the hotel have been reported to have less than 1% disorientation. I doubt this was an issue for SPJ in choosing the venue, but I'm glad our hotel is doing its part.