By DOTTY NIST
Sea turtles are among the most ancient creatures on earth, but all five sea turtle species found in the United States are listed by the federal government as either endangered or threatened. Four of those species have nested in Walton County, with loggerheads being the most numerous.
Fortunately, this year a record number of sea turtle nests have been reported by the South Walton Turtle Watch, (SWTW) the volunteer group whose members walk the beach daily to monitor sea turtle nesting. So far, more than 70 nests have been marked along Walton County’s 26-mile beachfront.
Still, sea turtles face many threats both from natural predators and from man, as the beaches where they nest become more and more developed. To assist with the survival of these native animals, Walton County has put measures in place.
The sea turtle nesting season begins May 1 and runs through October on the Gulf Coast. Female sea turtles must come onshore to a sandy beach in order to nest. They usually come onto the beach at night alone, crawling above the high tide line, digging an egg cavity in the sand and depositing from 50 to 200 eggs into the nest. The female sea turtle then covers the nest with sand. The process may take two hour or more, and then she returns to the gulf.
Sea turtle hatchlings begin to emerge from their nests about eight weeks after the start of nesting, and this continues throughout the summer and fall months. The hatchlings’ instincts direct them to move toward the brightest area, which under natural conditions would be gulf, in which the night sky is reflected. On a developed beach, the problem comes when the emerging hatchlings are disoriented and drawn toward artificial light rather than the gulf. This makes the young turtles much more vulnerable to predators and also may likely result in them perishing from dehydration or exhaustion. In some cases they have even been run over by cars.
Bright artificial lighting may also discourage female sea turtles from nesting.
In 2009, Walton County approved the Wildlife Lighting Ordinance, which became effective in December 2010 for all properties between the mean high water line of the gulf and 750 feet landward. Under the terms of the ordinance, property owners are responsible for making sure that all lighting along the beach is controlled so that the beach is not directly or indirectly illuminated.
Property owners are required to minimize beachfront lighting by turning off, shielding, or redirecting lighting away from the beach. It is recommended that they inspect their property at night from the beach to make sure that no part of the beach is illuminated from any of their lighting and that no light sources from their property are visible from the beach.
Fines for violations of the Wildlife Lighting Ordinance range from $250 per day for the first violation to $500 per day for repeat violations.
Both residents and visitors are requested to help reduce risks to sea turtles by not letting balcony or porch lights shine onto the beach during sea turtle nesting season, closing blinds and drapes at night in gulffront rooms, and avoiding the use of torches, lanterns, flashlights and camera flashes while they are on the beach. They are also urged not to approach sea turtles coming onto the beach or entering the gulf, as they are easily frightened.
Chairs, umbrellas, tents, and other similar items left on the beach at night have also been found to interfere with sea turtle reproduction. In many cases, these materials have resulted in “false crawls,” female sea turtles coming onto the beach and leaving without nesting due to obstruction.
Walton County’s Leave No Trace ordinance states that, with certain exceptions, items of this type are not allowed to be left on the beach between one hour after dusk and one hour after sunrise. Items left on the beach at night may be considered abandoned and are subject to removal by the county. Exceptions are items for which a county permit is obtained and large items that would be difficult to remove from the beach that are moved to the toe of the dune for the night.
Violations of the Leave No Trace Ordinance may result in fines ranging from $100 for the first violation to $500 and/or up to 60 days in jail for third and subsequent violations.
Information on the Wildlife Lighting Ordinance is available by contacting the Walton County Environmental Department at (850) 892-8108—or may be viewed on the Walton County web site, www.co.walton.fl.us, by selecting the heading “Departments” and then “Environmental Resources.” Information on the Leave No Trace Ordinance is available by calling Walton County Code Enforcement at (850) 622-0000.