Sea Turtle Season Begins May 1
April 25, 2014 by Marla Burns
One of the most extraordinary things about South Walton beaches are the sea turtles that nest here. They need our help and protection to survive. As a volunteer with South Walton Turtle Watch (SWTW), it’s not only a great opportunity to spend time on the beach, but it’s also a great way to enjoy nature and create community.
South Walton Turtle Watch is a group of volunteers whose purpose is to locate sea turtle nests and protect them during the crucial nesting and hatching season. By law, only certified members are allowed to interact with the endangered sea turtles.
The sea turtle nesting season is from May to October, and every season volunteers give their time and effort to monitor the special creatures that return to our beaches every year to nest and continue their life journey.
My husband and I have been members of SWTW for going on 13 years and it’s been one of the most exciting, rewarding and exceptional experiences of our lives. For one thing, it’s the only thing that will get me out on the beach at sunrise, a special time of day when it’s just you and the quiet beauty of the beach at a time most folks are still fast asleep.
With nesting season quickly approaching, South Walton Turtle Watch is once again looking for volunteers to help protect these endangered and threatened species. Volunteers are the life blood of SWTW and without their dedication, the survival rate of this wonderful creature would most assuredly dwindle.
If you want to volunteer, here are a few things you should know. First of all, it’s a commitment of at least one morning per week for six months (not the entire morning, but just the time it takes you to complete your designated walk). You’d need to be able to walk the beach at about 5:30 a.m. and during nesting season, you’d be looking for signs of a turtle crawl (specific tracks made by the nesting female). Nests and false crawls are documented, and volunteers also monitor hatching nests and document the success rate.
Because of hazards for turtles, there’s a beach ordinance concerning items like chairs, tents, beach toys, trash and other items left on the beach overnight. Volunteers can help by reporting items in violation to SWTW or the Walton County Sheriff.
One nightmare turtles face are the deep holes that folks dig in the sand. Although we ask people to fill in their holes before leaving the beach, many are left and volunteers help fill in the holes they come across during their walks. These can be deadly traps for nesting turtles and especially for hatchlings trying to get to the relative safety of the water.
You can also help by educating the public about the use of things like flashlights and cameras on the beach after dark, because the light will distract and disorient nesting adults and hatchlings from the nature of their journey. There are red light emitting flashlights available that will provide light, without disturbing the turtles.
The rewards of volunteering for SWTW far outweigh the effort, as you are kept in the loop when nests are hatching and can often take part in the ‘dig’. Once nests hatch, they are dug a few days afterwards to make sure no hatchlings are left in the nest, and the findings are documented for Florida Fish and Wildlife records. Participating in a dig is a wonderful opportunity to see hatchlings. Any found hatchlings are later released to the Gulf and it’s such a thrill to be able to take part in the release.
FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) requires that walkers come to a volunteer training session that is held once a year at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fl.
If interested in becoming a SWTW volunteer or for more information, contact our fearless leader, Sharon Maxwell at 850-897-5228, visit the website at southwaltonturtlewatch.org, or check out the facebook page.
If you can’t volunteer, but you’d still like to help, donations are always appreciated and can be sent to:
South Walton Turtle Watch Group c/o Sharon Maxwell
74 Birch St.
Freeport, Florida 32439