Witnessing a baby sea turtle release

We had a wonderful opportunity to witness a baby turtle release with some students and volunteers from NSU (Nova Southeastern University). This was a sold out event put on by the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program to promote awareness about sea turtles.

We started our evening at the campus for a briefing about what was to come, yes, sitting back in those classroom desk-chairs for students. This brought back some memories! The session turned out to be very thorough and informative. Our leaders, Jess and Abby, covered a lot of ground about turtles in general and about what the team does for us along the coast. If you’ve ever been to our South Florida Beaches between June and October and seen those roped off turtle nests with the wooden poles and tape complete with a sign warning of severe fines and penalties, well that’s just one of the things these folks do. Every morning before sunrise, they are out there looking for nests and roping them off before people arrive. They also look for hatched nests and help to save any stragglers. We learned that when the nest of 50-150 eggs hatch, the little turtles all come out in a group climbing over each other to get to the surface. Some of the nest can be four or even seven feet deep! The bigger the turtle, the deeper the nest! So those hatchlings that are unlucky enough to be under the weight of the crowd or are pushed down into the sand and egg remains, may get stuck there unable to emerge. Our local Sea Turtle Conservation crew patrol up and down the coast searching the beaches for these, collecting them and doing a release with any found hatchlings in the evening.

There are a lot of things that can interfere and disrupt the natural instincts of these turtles to nest close to where they themselves were born. Man-made obstacles including sandcastles or holes on the beach which we were encouraged to flatten, beach erosion and bright lights from nearby construction or buildings. Lights can spook turtles coming to nest, but worse, the hatchlings get attracted to the lights and can run in the wrong direction. They seem to be genetically programmed to run for the brightest object, which should presumably be the moonlit sea. With all the lights from beachfront developments we can see from the tracks that rather than all the hatchlings making a beeline to the beach there is a confused running in all directions. So please, those of you with beachfront porch lights or when parking facing the ocean, do the turtles a favor and close or dim those lights!

After the lecture, we were introduced to this evening’s hatchlings. None of them more than a couple of inches long the staff had collected 2 buckets, one with 28 and the other with 25 hatchlings. These were all found the same morning, and our catch of the day were loggerhead turtles. Aptly named because when they get big, and their large heads and necks come to the surface to breathe, boaters would mistake them for logs. Watching these little critters swarm around in the bucket full of sand made us want to rinse them off and set them free. It’s hard to imagine that they can one day grow to 350 pounds and enjoy a long life of 50 years or more.

Leaving the university in a convoy of cars, we headed out to Hollywood beach near Sheridan park and made our way to the now dark beach where a roped off section had already been assembled for this evenings release. The guides led us with red lights, which are less invasive on wildlife. There were no pictures allowed at the release.

Interestingly the release program actually tries to replicate the natural running down the beach to the sea by letting the turtle hatchlings loose just near the shoreline. This is primarily to mimic the instinctual scenario of coming out of the nest. When asked, it was explained that we really don’t understand how turtles know how to come back to their birthplace to nest again after coverings so much ground. Since this running down the beach may have something to do with it, the idea is to make the release as natural as possible so as not to disrupt any normal patterns. Who knows, we may see a lot of turtles coming to the university classroom where we first saw the buckets! At least that beautiful campus was close to the beach!

A few at a time the little guys were placed in the sand and you could see them trying to run off towards the surf. The waves would come in, and most would get pushed back – two steps forward, five steps back – but eventually, all the little ones were able to ride a wave out into that big ocean. As divers, we get to see and enjoy these waters and we know there are some big things in there. Be careful little turtles!

Leatherback turtles can grow to 2000 pounds when fully grown but all turtles including these start off under 2 oz and are only 2-3 inches long. A lot of predators are waiting in the shadows. Birds, crabs, pets, and of course, even if they survive into the depth, there are the fish. The unfortunate odds are estimated at only 1 in 1000 getting to be fully grown. Those are sad numbers, and while once plentiful, turtles are scarcer and scarcer and maturity takes a long time to achieve. Much of this is due to man’s interference; it was nice to see mankind trying to do something good for a change with these release programs. Sixty turtles tonight and perhaps if done every night for the whole season… it can start to make a difference!

Turtles are very well protected here in Florida and we do hope that the rest of the world follows suit. It’s sad to hear that in some countries like Malaysa, sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and there are cultural perceptions (or old folklore) that these have mystical powers or medicinal qualities. The over harvesting of these eggs has dramatically reduced turtle populations by 80% or more in the past 50 years in these areas. Not that we’re much better here with plastics, fish hooks, and boat propellers hurting our local turtle populations. A plastic bag looks a lot like a jellyfish, a favorite food for turtles, but can be deadly!

Turtles are magnificent creatures to watch on a dive when we’re lucky enough to see them. Today’s outing to hatch and release these little guys has given us a new appreciation for how precarious being a turtle hatchling is. In 20 years, when we’re out diving we may wonder if one of those loggerheads we see off the coast of Fort Lauderdale could possibly be one of the ones we watched start its life from an NSU bucket thanks to the dedicated efforts of the young conservationists at the university. Way to go Turtle… come back and see us!!

If you see sea turtles or hatchlings, whether dead, sick, injured, or in need of help please contact the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program at 954-328-0580 or seaturtles@nova.edu


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