Featured Image Credit: Photo courtesy of National Geographic Kids
By: Laura O’Brien
Sandy Stam, the lead volunteer of the Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol, met with me this winter to discuss her organization’s role in keeping St. Johns County’s beaches safe sea turtles. Volunteers patrol the beach daily to look for nests, turtles, and any conditions that may be hazardous for marine life.
Many things pose a threat to hatchlings. When freshly hatched sea turtles leave the nest and make their harrowing journey to the sea, predators and man-made obstacles can prevent the youngsters from ever reaching the sea.
One commonly known hazard for baby sea turtles is bright, beachside lights. The hatchlings are instinctually trained to travel toward the light of the moon, which will lead them to the sea. Unfortunately, white lights along boardwalks and beachside real-estate can lead the turtles astray. Sandy Stam is on call for the Turtle Patrol, so she mentioned one night when a boardwalk attracted the attention of a nest of turtles. Stam sprung into action in the middle of the night to help the confused turtles. She said it took at least an hour and a half to collect all the hatchlings. Incidents such as this can be prevented by using amber lights rather than white in areas that are visible from the beach or turning beachside lights off during hatching season, however, they continue to occur.
Stam also warned me about another potentially fatal problem for sea turtles that I was not aware of. Failure to fill in holes that you have dug in the sand can potentially trap hatchlings on their way to the ocean. Stam shared her photograph of a massive hole that trapped many sea turtles and left them baking in the brutal Florida sun. Luckily, the Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol came across the trapped turtles and saved them before they were killed from the heat.
Even private fences can impede the Patrol’s life-saving work. Although fences that extend onto public beaches are illegal in Florida, that doesn’t always stop residents. Especially wealthy land-owners. Such fences can make certain parts of the beach inaccessible during high tide.
Despite the many obstacles that vulnerable young turtles face, the Sea Turtle Patrol does everything in their power to ensure that hatchlings make it into the water. The volunteers inspect the beaches each morning and mark new nests. They erect raised fences around the location of each nest to prevent interference of beachgoers (but allow the turtles to pass below), and record the GPS location. They monitor the nests for 45 days, then they watch for the nest to begin to “funnel”. Once the sand over the nest begins to sink, it is “funneling”, which means that some of the turtles have begun to hatch and make their way toward the surface. The patrol continues to monitor the nest for tracks (a sign that the turtles have begun their journey to the sea).
Three days after tracks have appeared, the Turtle Patrol takes inventory of the nest. They record the amount of successfully hatched eggs, turtles that never made it out of the nest, and unhatched eggs. They also take 1 egg from each loggerhead nest for DNA testing, which is performed by the University of Georgia.
The patrol also has special procedures for dead sea turtles, hatchlings that are pushed back onto the shore after making it to sea, and cold-stunned turtles.
If you are interested in helping sea turtles, you can be sure to use responsible beach going practices, contact an appropriate organization if you see a sea turtle in need of help, donate to an organization, or join a Sea Turtle Patrol near you!
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