Endless days floating on the Gulf stream, basking in the sunlight, then plunging down into the ocean to dine on fresh seafood and sea grasses ... for a sea turtle to achieve such nature-intended fathoms of bliss, it must beat some very long odds. The chances of a hatchling surviving to adulthood may be as few as one in 10,000—nevermind they’ve been around since the dinosaurs, roughly 110 million years.
Allen Foley, a Jacksonville-based wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), said it’s hard to pinpoint the survival odds of a single turtle because these endangered reptiles are so elusive. Juvenile and male turtles never leave the sea. Mature female turtles only come ashore to lay their eggs on the very beach where they were hatched, then scoot back into the water.
“A female sea turtle lays 1,000 to 10,000 eggs over her lifespan, and every sea turtle needs at least one hatchling to survive to replace themselves, so we say a baby sea turtle’s odds of survival are somewhere between one in 1,000 to one in 10,000,” Foley said.
Fortunately, this area is awash in turtle lovers and aficionados who help improve the odds. Visitors can spot community efforts by simply strolling the beaches of Nassau, Duval and St. Johns counties. From May through October, small staked-off areas, generally marked with bright netting or tape, can be seen near the dunes.
“We recruit every April and always have a full house of interested people,” said Susan Hughes, a six-year-veteran of the Beaches Sea Turtle Patrol (BSTP), Duval County’s volunteer turtle monitors. “Of course, when we tell them they’re going to have to patrol a stretch of beach at 6 am and again after dusk, the room clears out a little.”
Nevertheless, BSTP keeps a core of 35-38 active volunteers plus a waiting list, and they’re just one of several turtle advocacy groups in the area.
Trained patrollers look for turtle tracks in the sand, evidence of a mother turtle having crawled above the high-tide mark to excavate a pit and lay her leathery, golf ball-sized eggs. The size and type of tracks help identify the species. Of the seven existing sea turtle species, five can be found in Florida and three—loggerheads, green sea turtles and leatherbacks—nest on the beaches here. Volunteers locate the nest, make a record of it, mark it, and place a protective screen over the top. The gestation period for sea turtle eggs is around two months, so the nests need protection for a while.
In 2016, the BSTP recorded 75 nests in Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beaches, up from 63 in 2015. Although sea turtle watch groups monitor turtle nesting behavior, the Duval County group monitors one of Florida’s 26 “index” beaches, meaning it’s strictly surveyed by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in order to predict state-wide sea turtle nesting activity.
In the evening, patrol members survey the beaches for obstructions that might impede turtle progress, and they monitor the lighting from homes and businesses along the beach.
“Artificial light can override the natural cues hatchlings use to find their way to the ocean,” said Foley. “The brightest thing they should see is the horizon over the ocean.”
Hatchlings that get confused and walk toward the dunes, or onto streets and parking areas, can become dehydrated or get snagged by predators like dogs, crabs, raccoons or shore birds.
Sometimes, just before the break of day, beachgoers may catch a glimpse of a sea turtle laying, or one pulling herself along the sand, back into the ocean. And every once in a while, they may even witness the eggs hatching. “All I can say is that watching the hatchlings emerge—well, it transforms your life,” Hughes said. “It’s magical.”