Sea Turtle Nesting and Conservation

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By Shayne Benowitz

Miami’s beautiful beaches are a critical habitat for sea turtles. Find out a little about these gentle amphibians and their nesting season.

Miami and the entire state of Florida represents a critical nesting habitat for these threatened creatures, which range from critically endangered to vulnerable. The only time sea turtles come on land is during nesting season when females lay eggs on the beach so precautions and regulations have been put in place to protect sea turtle nests on our public beaches.

If you’ve traveled to Miami in the late summer or early fall, there’s a good chance you’ve spotted yellow tape and metal poles on the beach randomly marking areas around the beach. These are actually highly protected sea turtle nests. You will notice these are large square patches occasionally pretty close to the tide where the sand has been kicked up into a pile under which a sea turtle has laid her eggs.

Types of Sea Turtles in Miami

The most common sea turtle species in Miami are the threatened loggerhead turtle and leatherback turtles and the endangered green turtles. All of these need our awareness and protection, which is why it is very important to stay clear of the taped off nests and any nesting turtles you might notice scrambling on the beach at night or if you are so lucky to see a hatching, stay clear and whatever you do, do not pick up any of the young hatchlings as they make their way to the sea.

The loggerhead is distinct for being the world’s largest hard-shelled turtle, with adults weighing an average of 180 to 440 pounds. They’re identifiable by their large heads that are usually a yellowish color with red-brown spots. Loggerhead turtle females will typically return to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs, even if they need to travel thousands of miles. Worldwide population numbers of these amazing animals are unknown, but the scientists who study nesting populations are continuing to see decreases despite endangered species protections.

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest of all living turtles and are easily identifiable for lacking a hard, bony shell. Instead, as their name suggests, they’re covered by skin and oily flesh that appears leathery. They’re the most hydrodynamic of any sea turtle thanks to their teardrop body shape. In the Caribbean Basin, adult leatherbacks can average about 850 pounds but have been known to get as large as 2,000 pounds and 7 feet long.

The green sea turtle’s name can be misleading since these turtles are usually black or dark brown in color and actually get their name from a green rim of fat found beneath their shell. They’re very similar in appearance to loggerhead weighing in around 150 - 400 pounds and can live over 80 years old, but unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, eating sea grasses and algae where the younger ones will also eat invertebrates like crabs and jellyfish.

Nesting Season & the Sea Turtle Life Cycle

In Miami, sea turtle nesting season is from May to October and it takes approximately two months for eggs to hatch once they’ve been laid. When baby sea turtles hatch, they’re only three inches long and are born with a natural instinct orienting them to the sea. Without any guidance, these tiny creatures crawl towards the water until they’re absorbed by it and begin their lives as ocean dwellers.

In recent years, an average of about 350 nests have been identified and protected annually in Miami, the majority of which are found in Miami Beach with a strong representation in Key Biscayne, Golden Beach and Fisher Island. In Florida, an average of 14 million hatchlings are released to the sea annually.

Threats to Habitat & Sea Turtle Conservation

The biggest threats to endangered sea turtles come from loss of habitat due to sea level rise and urban development. Light pollution on land can also prove disorienting to sea turtles while they’re nesting. Of the many pollutants that make their way into the ocean, plastics are particularly harmful to sea turtles. Plastic bags and cups look like jellyfish, which sea turtles feed on, but when they ingest plastic or get wrapped in it, it’s often deadly. Natural predators in the food chain are also a threat, ranging from mammals raiding their nests on land to tiger sharks and other apex predators in the sea.

Fortunately, regulations have been put in place through state and local laws like Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act to protect the sea turtle habitat and save the species. There are also many sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation centers in Miami and across the state dedicated to the health of these enchanting mammals.

Anyone who’s spotted a sea turtle in the wild, whether snorkeling, boating or simply swimming knows how special these graceful animals are. Do your part by steering clear of sea turtle nests when you see them, keeping our beaches clean, cutting up any plastic beverage holders and throwing all plastic into the trash. Only by respecting sea turtle nests and learning more about these magnificent creatures can we hope to be lucky enough to experience their beauty and mystique well into the future.

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