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SoWal Sea Turtle Season Summary 2016

December 9, 2016 by Manny Chavez

Baby sea turtle hatchlings heading out to sea are just too darn cute! Their little flippers propel them toward the open gulf, their tell-tale tracks miniature replicas of those tracks left only a few months prior by their massive mother.

Every Sea Turtle nesting season (May through October here in SoWal), the South Walton Turtle Watch (SWTW) volunteers head out at sunrise and sunset in search of turtle tracks. This year, 60-70 volunteer walkers patrolled our 20 miles of SoWal beaches. Their training has provided them with the knowledge to not only recognize the tracks, but to distinguish the TYPE of turtle coming onshore.

While discovering these tracks is always exciting for the walkers, spotting a live sea turtle in the act of digging her nest near the dune line is icing on the cake. Many volunteer walkers have NEVER had this experience, but turtle walker Sunni Ellis witnessed this amazing phenomenon her FIRST season! Sea Turtles will usually lay their eggs at night, so a daytime nesting is very unusual. Sunni, who was substitute walking for fellow walker Jacob Thomas, came upon turtle tracks leading up to the dune line. Looking towards the dunes, she could see sand flying every which way and realized she was witnessing a live sea turtle digging her nest…at this point, she was “pumped and locked in” to this turtle watching thing!

Veteran turtle walker Valerie Lofton, along with fellow coordinators Alan Newsome, Michael Asure, and Erica Magera, all work together to manage the volunteer walkers who patrol the 20 miles of SoWal beach. Heading up the group is Sharon Maxwell who, back in 1995, obtained the permit to legally track, dig, collect, and process all the data relating to sea turtle conservation. Only those with permits can legally handle the turtle eggs and hatchlings.

This year, only loggerhead turtles nested in SoWal with a total of 57 nests recorded. Other turtles who nest here include the green, leatherback, and Kemp’s ridley. All but the green variety remain on the endangered species list. The average year will yield around 40 nests.

“When you consider that 90 percent of the WORLD’S nesting loggerheads come to Florida, that’s a huge responsibility,” emphasizes Valerie.

Mother nature sometimes gets in the way of the turtle egg hatching process. Although Hurricane Hermine had little effect in SoWal, the subsequent high tides covered several existing turtle nests resulting in temporary nest flooding that stopped the incubation period, effectively “drowning” the eggs and hatchlings.

Man-made blocks to the overall turtle nesting process come in many forms. Only permitted individuals are allowed inside the taped nest barriers that are erected by the SWTW volunteer walkers. Yet, especially now with the increased number of people on our beaches, more and more people and dogs are finding their way onto the nests.

“Our natural resources are literally at risk. Our dunes, our turtles, our scrub oaks, our dune lakes…all are at risk,” continues Valerie. “We need to encourage visitors and locals how important it is to preserve what we have now so that future generations can enjoy it too.”

The SWTW group is charged with the purpose of locating sea turtle nests and protecting them during their crucial nesting and hatching season. To help with educating the public about the nesting season, the Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles (FOSWST) are just wrapping up their second season and have grown from seven to 55 members.  Led by Beth Coppedge, the group provides educational programs and materials for schools, libraries, events, businesses, restaurants, vacation rental, etc.

Thanks to SWTW volunteer Matt Magera, the Hilton Sandestin agreed to play SWTW’s PSA on a continuous loop in their common areas and rooms. The cool Friends hashtag, #CleanDarkFlat, kinda says it all: take your stuff off the beach when you leave; keep lights that can be seen from the beach turned off at night and use red light emitting flashlights while on the beach at night; and PLEASE fill in your holes and smooth out your sandcastles for the night.

Thanks to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the FOSWST obtained a grant funded by the sale of Sea Turtle Specialty License Plates. This grant is a big help in covering the educational material printing costs.
This year, a new Ambassadors group led by Laurie Reichenbach has aligned with Friends to help further educate people on the beach about everything from sea turtles to local restaurants. All three groups had a busy season and are looking forward to next year.  I

f you are interested in volunteering, donating, membership, etc., please go to the following: For SWTW: 850-276-2277, www.southwaltonturtlewatch.org; Friends: www.friendsofswseaturtles.org; Ambassadors, www.friendsofswseaturtles.org.

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Manny Chavez

Manny and his wife Kris moved to the Emerald Coast in 1992. After 16 years as staff photographer for The Houston Post, Manny has successfully transitioned to creative weddings and beach portraits.

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