Take a walk with a sea turtle
05/03/2014 12:00 AM
04/30/2014 6:11 PM
It is night and the beach is dark. A guide with a flashlight that emits only red light leads several dozen people along the sand, then suddenly stops.
“One is coming out now,” he announces.
A huge sea turtle lumbers out of the surf, waddles slowly up the beach until she reaches a spot as far as possible beyond the high-water line. There she digs a hole with her flippers, settles in above it and begins laying eggs.
Watching sea turtles lay their eggs is a enormously popular annual activity, all the more so because it is a uniquely Florida experience. The giant turtles, which weigh several hundred pounds, come ashore in late spring and summer to dig their nests. There they may lay as many as 200 or more eggs. While in this birthing process, they remain unmoving and can be approached.
A good way to witness this phenomenon is to join one of the “turtle walks” offered by museums, nature centers and other groups from late May into July. Eighteen organizations are licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to conduct public sea turtle watches.
Reservations must be made in advance for these gatherings. A list of these organizations, together with their location and telephone numbers, is available on the Fish and Wildlife web site, www.myfwc.com/education/wildlife/sea-turtle/where-to-view.
On Florida’s Atlantic coast, public watches are conducted in Vero Beach, Titusville, Canaveral National Seashore, Melbourne, Melbourne Beach, Jensen Beach, Stuart, Boca Raton, Hobe Sound, North Palm Beach, Dania, Juno Beach and Fort Lauderdale. On the state’s west coast: Naples, Sarasota and Fort Myers.
“Groups are limited to 25 persons per guide, with a maximum of 50 with two guides, and we also limit the number of walks per week,” said Robbin Trindell, biological administrator for the Fish and Wildlife Commission, “and we only allow turtle walks to observe loggerheads.” Loggerheads, which weigh several hundred pounds, are the most numerous of the sea turtles. Less common are the larger leatherbacks, which can reach more than six feet in length and weigh 1,000 pounds or more. Green turtles, an endangered species, are easily spooked, which is why the Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to keep people away from them.
Most beach walks are offered three times a week, usually run two or three hours beginning at 9 p.m., and are not recommended for young children, the elderly or disabled. Each organization has its own guidelines.
Reservations usually can be made beginning in early May for the summer walks and it is advisable to make them as early as possible. “We usually sell out,” noted Kristin Child, environmental program coordinator for the Gumbo Limbo nature Center in Boca Raton, which charges $10 for members, $17 per person for non-members eight years and older.
A sampling of other walk offerings:• Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Vero Beach, $15, booked online only, not for children under 7 or the elderly. www.seaturtlewalks.org.
• Museum of Discovery and Science, Fort Lauderdale, $18 members, $20 non-menbers, 18 dates in June and early July. 954-713-0930, www.mods.org.
• Florida Power and Light Co., near Port St. Lucie, Fridays and Saturdays June and July. 800-334-5483, www.fpl.com/community/learning/marine_education_center.shtml.
See details, conditions, and list of other sites on the Fish and Wildlife web site.
Of course, you can go out on your own to watch the turtles lay their eggs, but the guides on public watches not only know where the turtles are likely to come ashore but also share their knowledge of the turtles and their lifecycles.
If you go out on your own, know that Florida law prohibits interfering with the turtles in any way or taking their eggs. You must be quiet and cannot use regular flashlights, which disturb the turtles; turtles prefer to lay their eggs in sites away from light.
When the eggs hatch, experts help the baby turtles make their way to the sea. These turtle releases are usually done in daytime and visitors are welcome to witness them.
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