Everyone loves sea turtles. One of the most exhilarating moments a person can have to is to see a sea turtle swimming in the Gulf from the beach, or a boat, or from our local fishing pier. It is an exciting moment not only for us but we want to share it with anyone in the area at the moment! Better yet is to see the hatching and “run” of baby sea turtles leaving the nest; something few have seen. This excitement is not just for tourists but for long time residents in Escambia County. Many of our residents who lived here for decades have never seen a sea turtle.
Turtles are good for business. Seeing one of these animals wants you to see more and learn more about them. For tourists visiting the area it can lead to them wanting to return to this beach year after year and bring friends. Along with this sea turtles provide environmental services, such as consuming jellyfish that tend to drive tourists to other locations. But we all know, whether we have seen a turtle or not, that sea turtle populations in the Gulf of Mexico have suffered over the past century from intentional and accidental death caused by humans.
There are 25 species of turtles found in the state of Florida, 21 of these are found in Escambia County; which ranks us as one of the most turtle diverse counties in the state. Five of these species are marine turtles and four of them are known to nest along the Florida panhandle. Most predation within turtle populations occur when they are hatchlings. A clutch of turtle eggs can range from 5 – 105 (depending on the species) and the success of reaching maturity is generally less than 10%; this is no different in marine turtles. Young hatchlings that do make it to the water tend to swim offshore and spend what are called the “mystery years” drifting in the Sargassum mats or other hideaways. Juveniles (teenagers of the turtle world) tend to move back inshore and change their diets. Large sexually mature marine turtles have few predators; tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvieri) being one exception.
However humans have increased the loss of marine turtles at all stages of their lives. Hatchlings are encountering pets, deep holes, tire ruts, plastic garbage, beach chairs and umbrellas, and bright lighting that disorient their attempt to reach the Gulf. Adults are struggling with plastic, fishing line, boat impacts, and entrapment in fishing nets and long lines. All five species of marine turtles are protected by the federal government and enforcement of these federal laws falls under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Several federal and state agencies have worked together over the decades to try and reduce the loss and populations are increasing. The variety of nesting turtles on our beaches is also increasing; we have had reports of the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting in the panhandle. This is all good news but there are still things we as citizens of Escambia County can do to help reduce the loss of these animals in our waters. Here are a few:
- Cover any holes you dig at the beach during the day; this will reduce the chance of entrapment by hatchlings
- Bring in your beach chairs and umbrellas at the end of the day
- Remove all trash from the beach particularly plastic bags and balloons that can be confused with jellyfish; a food item for these animals
- Do not allow your pets to run the beach; they can detect nest and dig them up as well consume small hatchings that may be heading down
- And finally lighting… hatchlings instinctively move towards bright light on their way towards the Gulf. There are several practices to reduce this risk:
(a) Studies show that hatchlings have a harder time detecting long wavelength colors like red and yellow. Using low wattage amber lighting will reduce this risk. LED amber lights are recommended by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They are more efficient and cost effective.
(b) Make sure the bulb fits up within the fixture so that the light is directed down and not “around”. Wall mounted lights can use shields to direct the lighting down.
(c) Mount the outdoor light low to the ground if possible. Low mounted lighting is blocked by either structure of the property of the dunes themselves reducing the amount reaching the beach.
(d) Close your drapes / windows at night while watching television or doing other indoor activities.
(e) Turn off all outdoor lights when you retire for the evening. If security is an issue, consider using motion-detecting lighting. This will only come on when a problem is possibly occurring but keep the turtles in the dark otherwise.
TURTLE ACTIVITY IN AREA:
LOCATION Mean High Low
Pensacola Beach (96-07)
# of Nest 10 17 3
Disorientation 5 10 1 50% disorientation
Gulf Islands NS (96-11)
# of Nest 25 52 8
Disorientation 12 26 3 47% disorientation
Data provided by Mark Nicholas – Biologist – Gulf Islands National Seashore
For more information on sea turtles or companies that sell turtle friendly lighting products contact Rick O’Connor – Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent at 475-5230 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Identification of sea turtles – http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw246
Turtle lighting – http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw328