Lesson 1: Sea Turtles in South Florida

Sea Turtles!  We all love them, right? 

Who do you think of when you read about a Sea Turtle? Does CRUSH ring a bell, that surfer dude from Finding Nemo?

Here in South Florida we are very lucky to have five different types of sea turtles native to our region and between 70% - 90% of sea turtle nesting in the U.S. occurs in Florida. Broward County serves as a consistent nesting area of three specific species of sea turtles: the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtle, the green (Chelonia mydas) sea turtle, and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtle.

NSU Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography manages the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program in partnership with Broward County. The program provides for the conservation of endangered and threatened sea turtle species within Broward County. Vocabulary: Oceanography, the branch of science that deals with the physical and biological properties and phenomena of the sea. 

Have you ever been on one of our beaches and seen some of the sand roped off with a sign for the sea turtle eggs?  Typically, sea turtles will return to our beaches from March through October to lay their eggs. 

Sea turtle populations have been seriously reduced worldwide through a number of human influences. Pollution of the waters via trash, chemicals, and discarded fishing nets, lines, and hooks are frequently ingested by sea turtles causing internal health issues. Incidental capture of sea turtles in fishing nets and shrimp trawls, can prevent sea turtles from reaching the surface to breathe. Overdeveloped coastal areas have reduced natural nesting habitats and caused increased lighting which confuses hatchlings and nesting mothers. Boaters need to use caution as sea turtles can be primarily found at or just below the surface in coastal and inland waters especially during mating, nesting, and hatching season. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings that make it to the ocean will survive to adulthood, this is due to all the natural and anthropogenic (Vocabulary:  caused or influenced by humans) obstacles they face. For these reasons all sea turtle species are protected.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the loggerhead sea turtle and green sea turtle are listed as threatened. The leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle species are listed as endangered everywhere.

Deep Dive! How do sea turtles nest?

The female turtle will use her rear flippers and dig an egg chamber 2-5 feet deep, looking like an upside-down light bulb.   After resting briefly, she then fills the hole with about 80-120 ping-pong ball sized eggs, gently covers the eggs with sand, and then spreads sand over a wide area with her front flippers to camouflage the location of the chamber. She then leaves the nest site and reenters the water.

Since adult sea turtles do not nurture their hatchlings, the female never sees the nest site again.  A single female may nest several times during a season and then not nest again for one or two years. 

The crawl tracks left on the beach by the turtles coming to lay their eggs are always made by female sea turtles and they resemble marks left by a tractor tire. Male sea turtles never leave the ocean.

Incubation of the nests takes about 45-55 days. Here in Broward County the eggs that are deposited in the chambers (nests) are either left to incubate naturally or are moved, (relocated) to a safer area of the beach. Some of the nests are relocated because of the extent of the development on our beaches and the bright lights from condos, streets, and highway traffic. The relocation process serves to protect the emerging hatchlings so they can exit the nest and traverse the beach to the water on their own. Nests that are not moved are those that are already on safe beaches.   Today, there is a hands-off approach, leaving as many nests in situ (natural position) as possible. Relocation of eggs only occurs when the eggs are deposited in an area that compromises the success of egg development (below the high tide line, where the nest will be washed away, etc).

After incubation, the hatchlings emerge from the nest en masse and, using various environmental and inherited cues, quickly move to the water's edge. If artificial lights are lighting the beach, the hatchlings will be disoriented, travel in the wrong direction, and possibly never make it to the water.  Once in the water the hatchlings swim directly out to sea, facing a difficult struggle to survive to adulthood.  

Did you know?

Broward County had a record-breaking sea turtle nesting season in 2016 with a total of 3,567 nests laid overall, making it the highest year on record since the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program (BCSTCP) began counting nests in 1981. (Edging just ahead of the previous record in 2012 when 3,540 nests were laid). How can you help? 

5 Ways to Save A Sea Turtle

1. Lights Out

Hatchlings use the light from the moon to find their way to the water. Street lights discourages…

3. Clean Up Trash

Turtles can become tangled in plastic and trash (on the shore and in the water). Discarded items…

2. Reduce Chemical Usage

Chemicals you use on your lawn and in your home can actually wash into the coastal waters, killing…

1. Lights Out: Hatchlings use the light from the moon to find their way to the water. Turn off unnecessary lights that are visible from nesting beaches.  Close curtains or blinds at night if you live near the beach where nests are. Use certified “turtle-friendly” lights that are red or amber in color; these lights are much less disruptive to sea turtles.

2. Reduce Chemical Usage: Chemicals you use on your lawn and in your home can wash into the coastal waters, killing plants and animals. Make sure to properly dispose of toxic chemicals and find alternatives.

3. Clean Up Trash: Turtles can become tangled in plastic and trash (on the shore and in the water). Discarded items such as fishing lines & plastic bags, which may be confused for food, resulting in injury or death.

4. Become a Citizen Scientist: Organize a clean-up day, clear the beach of litter, give a presentation at school on how to save sea turtles and talk to others about how to make sure they are not putting these creatures in danger.

5. Avoid Nesting and Hatching Turtles: Sea turtles are tempting to touch & observe, but lights and people disturb them. Give nesting areas space, and do not disturb as they emerge from the ocean and avoid as they head back to water.

Career Corner!

Marine Biologist: Here in South Florida we are surrounded by water and there is so much to learn!

Marine biologists may study anything from the largest whale down to tiny plankton, microbes, and even the seawater itself. The sea and its denizens (vocabulary:  an inhabitant or occupant of a particular place) are facing the challenges of coexisting with commercial shipping, recreational boating, plastics, chemicals, and other issues associated with human activities. Marine biologists study how these activities affect marine life and suggest alternatives to minimize or prevent them.

There are also many jobs that come out of studying Marine Biology in college like wildlife biologist, zoologist, fish and wildlife biologist, fisheries biologist, aquatic biologist, conservation biologist, biological technician, marine mammalogist, microbiologist, systems analyst, mathematician and more. 

Marine BiologistIf you are interested in working  with sea turtles you may want to study Biology, Fishery, Zoology, or Oceanography. 

The jobs are very competitive so many people choose to get their master’s degree in fisheries, conservation, or biological oceanography as well. More and more universities are offering courses and programs in fisheries or wildlife management. 

So, if you want to work with Sea Turtles in the future, you may want to pursue studying Marine Biology!  You may end up working as a marine biologist for a state or federal government agency or in a research lab!  Or, as many kids envision, at an aquarium, zoo, museum or as a teacher!

Fun Fact:  Florida is one of the states with the most jobs available for marine biologists!

Quiz Time!

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