Sea Turtle Nesting and Conservation

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By Shayne Benowitz

Miami’s beautiful beaches are a critical habitat for sea turtles as our shores provide a haven for these gentle reptiles during their nesting season.

Greater Miami and the entire state of Florida represent 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 areas are large square patches pretty close to the tide, where the sand has been kicked up into a pile under which a sea turtle has laid her eggs.

Key Biscayne's Bill Bagg's State Park
Key Biscayne's Bill Bagg's State Park

Nesting Season & the Sea Turtle Life Cycle

In Miami, sea turtle nesting season is from May 1st to October 31st, but nesting can sometimes take place both before and after these months. It takes approximately two months for eggs to hatch once they’ve been laid. When baby sea turtles hatch, they’re only two to 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. Annually, sea turtles make between 40,000 and 80,000 nests along Florida's coastline.

Surfside Turtle Walk
The Surfside Turtle Walk was commissioned to bring awareness to Sea Turtle Conservation

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 reptiles.

Miami Beach has begun the Rising Above campaign specifically designed to raise awareness and help regulate light pollution that is problematic for sea turtles as well as other nocturnal wildlife.

Florida residents can help sea turtle conservation by purchasing the sea turtle license plate to show your dedication and interest in the survival of these beautiful, important members of our ecosystem.

Sunny Isles Beach
The majority of Sea Turtle nests in Miami are found on Miami Beach

Types of Sea Turtles in Miami

The most common sea turtle species in Miami are the threatened loggerhead turtles, the leatherback turtles and the endangered green turtles. All of these need our 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. If you are lucky enough to see a hatchling, stay clear and whatever you do, do not pick up any of the young hatchlings as they make their way to the sea. In addition, do not touch sea turtle nests or eggs.

The loggerhead is known for being the world’s largest hard-shelled turtle, with adults weighing an average of 180 to 440 pounds (large specimens of more than 1,000 pounds have been found). They’re identifiable by their large heads which are usually a yellowish color with red-brown spots. Female loggerhead turtles will typically return to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs (about 110 ping-pong-like eggs at a time), even if they need to travel thousands of miles. Worldwide population numbers of these amazing animals are unknown, but scientists who study nesting populations are continuing to see decreases worldwide. Nesting numbers in the Atlantic on average continue to increase, providing some hope, but despite endangered species protections, better efforts need to be made worldwide.

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 leathery skin and oily flesh. 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. Leatherbacks can dive to depths of 4,200 feet (deeper than all other turtles) and can stay below water for up to 85 minutes! Leatherbacks also have the widest global distribution, largely due to their ability to maintain warm body temperatures unlike most of their reptilian relatives.

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 loggerheads and weigh in around 250 - 400 pounds on average (some as large as 700 pounds) and get to about 5 feet long. Green sea turtles can live over 70 years and 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.

Surfside Beach
Surfside Beach is another popluar sea turtle nesting area

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 Florida’s beaches clean, cutting up any plastic beverage holders and throwing all plastic into the trash, and going strawless the next time you order a drink. 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.

Many of Greater Miami’s local beachside communities have programs focused on sea turtles. Surfside has some great information on their website as does Sunny Isles Beach. Don’t forget the Miami Seaquarium is one of the best learning facilities to learn more about these creatures!

In general, the sea turtle nesting statistics are getting better in Florida; however, we still need visitors and locals alike to make the effort to spread the word of these wondrous creatures and help them thrive locally as well as worldwide!

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