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Turtle nesting season begins for ANERR

Special to the Times
The Apalach Times

The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve is excited about the 2020 sea turtle nesting season, which in Franklin County, starts this month and lasts through October.

Of the five sea turtle species found in our area - the loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley - three are known to nest on our beaches, the loggerhead, green, and leatherback.

All sea turtle species are listed as threatened or endangered, with many challenges threatening them, including artificial lighting, habitat encroachment, marine debris, and illegal harvesting. Scientists estimate one one in 1,000 hatchlings will make it to maturity, but there are several ways to help sea turtles survive.

If you happen to see a nesting sea turtle while on the beach, please stay behind her and at a distance where she cannot see you. Noise, motion, and lights can cause the turtle to return to the gulf without laying her eggs. Please keep all lights off, including cell phone flashlights, flash photography and videography.

Please do not touch nesting females or emerging hatchlings. The journey from the nest to the water allows hatchlings to imprint their natal beach, and imprinting helps them remember where to return to in 20 or 30 years to lay their own eggs.

If you see someone harassing a sea turtle or disturbing a nest, please call the FWC Wildlife Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

Sea turtles need the beach to be clean, dark, and flat. A few more ways to help sea turtles are to turn off exterior lights and close the blinds and shades in beachfront homes after 9 p.m. Also, please be sure to abide by the ‘Leave No Trace’ ordinance which includes knocking down sandcastles, filling in holes on the beach, and removing all beach items between 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. With your help, 2020 will be another successful sea turtle nesting season.

The most common sea turtle to nest in the county is the loggerhead, so-named for its large, block-like head. ANERR recorded 434 loggerhead nests last year on St. George Island alone, along with 485 false crawls, which means a turtle came ashore but turned back around without laying a nest. This can happen when the turtle determines their chosen site is not suitable for nesting, but often occur if the turtle is startled by lights or people on the beach, or runs into unexpected obstacles like beach furniture, sand castles, or litter.

Adult loggerheads weigh an average of 275 pounds and have a shell length of about 3 feet long. Females lay three to five nests during a single nesting season, and the eggs will incubate for approximately two months before hatching. Their enormous range encompasses all but the most frigid waters of the world's oceans. Although they seem to prefer coastal habitats, they will travel hundreds of miles out to sea.

The green sea turtle is the second most prominent nester in Franklin County, and while last year broke the previous record (from 2019) as the biggest nesting year recorded to date for St. George Island,, there were still only 25 green nests and six false crawls.

An individual adult green sea turtle, which gets its name from its green-tinted body fat, will typically nest every other year. They weigh an average of 350 pounds, with an oval-shaped upper shell averaging 3.3 feet in length. While loggerheads have massive skulls and jaws for crunching shellfish, greens have a small head and grow up to be vegetarians, consuming seagrasses and algae.

The leatherback is the largest sea turtle species, averaging 6 feet in length and weighing between 500 to 1,500 pounds. It can tolerate colder waters, travel farther, and dive deeper than any other sea turtle. Every six to seven years, ANERR has recorded leatherback nests, with 2019 being the last occurrence.

Call 670-7700 for more details about the sea turtle monitoring program and for more ways you can help.