South Walton Turtle Watch: “Turtley” Worth It
By Dee Cruce
They’ve been around since the dinosaurs. What’s that? It just so happens that our gorgeous beaches are the long-time nesting ground of many endangered species of sea turtles, including the Loggerhead, Leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley and the commonly known Green sea turtle. That’s right, our sugar sands are really one big turtle mecca from May 1 through Oct. 31 each year. And then there’s a break for the holidays.
Endangered turtles on our beaches? Aren’t we doing something to preserve these incredible old creatures’ survival? Absolutely. Since 1998, Sharon Maxwell, the permit holder of the South Walton Turtle Watch, has led a team of volunteers who walk the beach from the Bay County line to the Okaloosa County line, seven days a week, before the day even breaks, during turtle nesting season. It’s a huge commitment, but “turtley” worth it.
Over the years, her team has grown and evolved from 25 volunteers to more than 90 today. The team is divided into smaller groups that walk sections of the beach from county to county looking for turtle tracks and fresh nests each morning. Once a nest is determined, the team flags it and stakes off the area in an effort to detract people from setting up near the nest for a day of fun in the sun. The nest is then monitored until the hatchlings move out and scamper down to the water. The entire process takes anywhere from 50 to 85 days, depending on weather conditions and beach sand temperature. Last year, all turtle watch records were broken when a total of 127 nests were discovered and monitored. On average, the season ushers in roughly 50 nests, mostly Loggerhead, with approximately 100 eggs in each. A female turtle might make several trips a year back to her imprinting area, even from thousands of miles out to sea, to nest and lay her eggs. The next season she will take a year off to rest.
The hatchlings instinctively know the best time to hatch is at night when the sand is cool. The first little turtle hatches and patiently waits for his turtle brethren to hatch before they, in a joint-effort, boil out of the nest like a pot on the stove and scamper down to the water. It is during this scampering process that the little turtles imprint upon our sand, so they might one day return to South Walton to lay eggs and perpetuate the cycle of life. One turtle in roughly 15,000 will survive to reach reproductive maturity, which is roughly age 20 years, to add perspective.
What can we do to help ensure their survival and success? The first thing we can do is share the sand. After all, they were here long before we were. Next, we must remember these three very important rules: 1) Clean the beach and leave it as you found it. 2) Keep the lights turned out. False light confuses turtles and can cause them to go in the wrong direction and away from the water. 3) And finally, keep the beach flat. Flatten your sand castles and cover your moats before you leave the beach. A flat beach is a safe beach for nesting turtles.
The South Walton Turtle Watch is a volunteer, non-profit organization. We welcome you to participate in the good work. Each turtle watcher goes through special training before being assigned a team and a section of beach to walk. Please do not attempt to flag a nest or go near it on your own. For more information, visit the South Walton Turtle Watch webpage at southwaltonturtlewatch.org.