By DOTTY NIST
Fortunately only a couple of sea turtle nests were destroyed in Walton County when Tropical Storm Cristobal arrived on the gulf just one month into sea turtle nesting season. This was the report from Lacie Wegner of the South Walton Turtle Watch on June 21.
Walton County got rain, wind, high and rough surf, and rip currents along the beaches when Cristobal, the third named storm of the 2020 hurricane season made landfall on June 7 on the southeast Louisiana coast.
The South Walton Turtle Watch is a local volunteer group whose members walk the beach daily to monitor sea turtle nesting on the beaches in Walton County. The organization currently has 110 volunteers, Wegner said.
By law only trained and permitted persons such South Walton Turtle Watch volunteers may interact with sea turtles or hatchlings.
All five sea turtle species found in the United States are listed by the federal government as either endangered or threatened. Sea turtles face many threats both from natural predators and from humans, as the beaches where they nest become more and more developed.
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 the female returns to the gulf.
Each female sea turtle nests only once every two years, generally returning to the same area.
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.
The Loggerhead species is the predominant one nesting in Walton County. However, Green Turtles are among the other sea turtle species that also nest on the local beaches.
Wegner reported a total of 21 sea turtle nests so far for the year, with 18 of those being Loggerhead nests. The remaining three are Green Turtle nests. The nests are located in various areas along the Walton County coastline.
“We’re excited to have the Greens,” Wegner said. She explained that 2019 had been a big year for Green Turtles but that 2020 had not been expected to be a year for Green Turtle nesting.
Wegner was also happy to report a low number of false crawls, which are instances of female sea turtles coming onshore but returning to the water without nesting, possibly resulting in loss of eggs carried by the females. Only seven false crawls were reported.
“We want to keep that low,” Wegner said of the number of false crawls.
Wegner said that typically the number of false crawls would be twice as many by this time of year.
Disturbances of nesting sea turtles, including obstacles or lighting on the beach that is not turtle friendly, are among the causes of false crawls. Wegner also said that, even without these factors it is normal for 50 percent of incidents of female sea turtle coming onshore to result in false crawls.
Wegner emphasized that the public can help sea turtles by keeping the beaches clean, dark and flat—by removing items from the beach that could obstruct turtles at night, keeping light off the beaches, and by filling in any holes that have been dug on the beach by the end of the day.
The sea turtle nesting season generally begins around May 1 and ends around Oct. 31.
Information on the South Walton Turtle Watch is available on the organization’s website, www.southwaltonturtlewatch.org, on their Facebook page, or by calling (850) 865-4503.