South Walton Turtle Watch Group report

From Barb Van Stavern

The 2020 sea turtle nesting is not over yet, but South Walton Turtle Watch Group (SWTWG) coordinators and volunteers continue to work to protect and conserve some of Walton County’s oldest and most vulnerable residents. The official end of nesting season is Oct. 31, but hatching will continue into November this season.

The 2020 season has been challenging in many ways with COVID, tropical storms, Hurricane Sally, as well as the loss of customary use along with easy, safe access to the beaches. SWTWG staff and volunteers have put in many hours of service in sometimes difficult circumstances but overall, they’ve managed to successfully conduct their work with the support of many, recording a total of 79 nests and 37 false crawls. Fifty-four nests were loggerheads, and 24 were greens. Nests lost to storm surges totaled 15, and there are currently 13 nests still incubating, some of which experienced some wash over but could still potentially produce hatchlings. 

Lacie Wegner, MTP #120 QI with SWTWG states, “these numbers are in line with our annual average, however we saw an unprecedented increase in the number of greens this season, which is really exciting.”

Sea turtles lay their eggs and can become stranded on both public and private beaches, sometimes high in the dunes and other times near the water; they potentially nest anywhere on the beach. This means that our teams will sometimes need to access private property to perform marine turtle permitted activities or to respond to sick, disoriented or injured animals. Wegner states, “we strive to minimize disturbance or damage to dune vegetation when performing these tasks.  We understand the importance of dune protection and respecting private property and take these issues very seriously. Fortunately, we rarely experience problems with being granted access to private property and we appreciate the fact that the majority of property owners are enthusiastically on board with the work we do. It’s a pretty exciting thing to have an endangered sea turtle nest in your back yard!”

SWTWG would like to thank Walton County TDC, private and public property owners, resorts, HOA’s, local businesses, restaurants, vendors, etc., for their support, assistance and cooperation in allowing us to access nesting beaches in order to perform these vital functions and activities that protect and conserve our sea turtles. We wish to express our gratitude for the continuing support of our community and visitors along with our volunteers and donors.

Trained surveyors identify specific sea turtle species by the crawls/tracks they make in the sand when they emerge from the water to lay their eggs. The nests are then staked, taped off and posted with the state and federal statutes that protect them. Wegner says, “daily monitoring will continue throughout the incubation period until hatching, excavation, inventory, data and authorized research sample collection is complete.” 

SWTWG also conducts other permitted activities that includes monitoring, measuring and recording data such as storm surge, washed over nests, predation of eggs/hatchlings, unlawful activities such as vandalism to nests, take of turtles or eggs, or harassment of turtles. SWTWG is also permitted to respond to live and deceased turtles and if necessary, will transport animals to the local rehabilitation facility, Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach.

“As the season begins to wind down,” Wegner says, “we will continue to monitor for hatchlings so it’s important to remember to turn off those beach front lights, cell phone lights, fill in holes, and pick up trash and belongings each day so our turtles can safely make their way to the water.”

The mission of South Walton Turtle Watch Group is to conserve and protect threatened and endangered sea turtles and nests on Walton County beaches. They operate under the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Turtle Permit #120. 

To report sea turtle sightings or stranded animals, please call (850) 865-4503. Never push beached or stranded animals back into the water.