Another Big Year for South Walton Sea Turtles
November 23, 2015 by Manny Chavez
This year’s sea turtle nesting season has come and gone with 84 total nests recorded in Walton County. With the help of 80 or so South Walton Turtle Watch (SWTW) volunteers, thousands of tiny hatchlings crawled out of their cozy dune nests and headed out to sea.
South Walton Sea turtles face long odds for survival. Females that survive will return about 25 years from now to lay their own eggs on the same stretch of beach where they hatched, as they have been doing for 65 million years.
“The past two years we’ve seen record numbers of sea turtle nests here in SoWal,” says SWTW volunteer coordinator Valerie Lofton. “The average year will yield around 40 nests.” Of the 84 nests this year, 78 were loggerhead, 4 were greens, there was one kemp’s ridley, and one leatherback.
The SWTW volunteers walk their designated beach area from May through October. Rain or shine, they walk their stretch of beach before sunrise and after sunset, looking for sea turtle crawls and taking care of each nest upon discovery. Sadly, the biggest threat to a turtle nests are humans.
“This year we saw more people bothering the nests,” explains Lofton. “Digging into the nest, pulling up our protective stakes, stepping in and walking all over the nests…just being totally disrespectful of the nesting areas. Dogs set free and running loose on the beach and into the dune areas has become a big problem and that is the fault of the human as well.”
May to October is a long season and when asked if she had any “high point” to refer to, Lofton was quick to answer: “Yes, just two weeks ago, my last nest of the year was taking too long to hatch. It was already mid-October and the nights were turning cold. I was afraid this nest just wasn’t going to hatch. I had gone out early, before sunrise, and the sand was cold on my feet. I looked around the nest and realized there were little hatchlings EVERYWHERE! I panicked as I hadn’t brought my usual small cooler with me to place the hatchlings in."
The turtle watch procedure is to let the hatchlings ‘imprint’ in the sand and then carry them from their nest to the sea to keep the birds and sand crabs from eating them before they enter the water.
"Luckily, a nearby house near the dune had their interior lights on and the folks inside were not only willing to help, but very excited to bring their kitchen pots and pans and a pie plate into action as we gathered the hatchlings into the containers and released them near the warm gulf waters," Valerie says. "Watching them swim out to sea was a wonderful way to end the season!”
With the help of social media, both the SWTW volunteers and their sister group, Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles, are working to educate the public regarding SoWal’s sea turtle nesting. They provide educational readings for kids, maintain fun blogs, and work with local businesses to do so. Volunteer and donation Information can be found at www.southwaltonturtlewatch.org, 850-897-5228 or www.friendsofswturtles.org, 850-203-0215. Hashtags: #cleandarkflat and #youdomakeadifference.