There are few things more thrilling on a visit to the beach than seeing a sea turtle flop its way up the shore to make a nest and leave its eggs behind, or even better, watching dozens of baby sea turtles emerge from their nest and make their way to the ocean. It’s not something you can plan in most cases, but there are ways to make it much more likely you’ll see sea turtles hatch on your next trip to the beach. We’ll get into that in a bit, but first, let me give you a little insight into how the nests come to be, and offer some tips on making sure you don’t interfere with the process.
When the weather is warm enough, pregnant sea turtles make their way to the same beaches where they hatched years before, searching for a spot to nest above the high water mark. She uses back flippers to dig, deposit the eggs, cover them and make her way back to the ocean. The process takes a couple hours typically. But she won’t do any of this if she hears noises on the shore, so it’s important for you to keep very quiet–and not shine any lights on her–or she’ll bolt right back into the water and the opportunity will be lost. Keep a distance and let her take care of business.
She’ll lay dozens of eggs, 100 even, which will then sit in the sand for about two months to incubate. Warmth is important, and the temperature of the sand will dictate what sex the turtles become, so if she dug deep where it’s cooler, more boy turtles are likely, but if it’s warmer, girls will emerge. It’s actually a concern that more and more female turtles are being born because of the increasing heat, and that climate change may jeopardize future breeding efforts.
Once it’s time to hatch, it pretty much happens all at once, and the sand will appear to be boiling over at first. They call this a “turtle boil”, and the little reptiles will emerge from their shells and sand and make their way instinctively to the water. They follow the light of the moon reflecting on the water, so if they see other lights nearby, whether from a building or a curious crowd, they’ll get confused, so it’s critical to block what lights you can. Resorts and buildings near the water know to only have specific kinds of lighting at night, so if you’re staying nearby, keep those rules in mind. The tiny turtles have very low odds of making it, some say as low as 1 in 10,000 for the loggerheads to make it to adulthood, so do what you can to help them out. The mass hatching helps them overwhelm predators who may pick them off one by one, like sea birds, raccoons, or other wildlife. Once they make it to the water they’ll still have a tough journey, growing and hiding during their early years.
I grew up on the Treasure Coast of Florida, in Vero Beach (the nickname comes from the shipwrecks off the coast where treasure has been found, but that’s another story). The Treasure Coast in general is home to a massive amount of sea turtles, including the green turtle, kemps ridley, the leatherback, and the loggerhead, all of which lay nests in the area. In fact, 90 percent of the world’s loggerhead reproduction takes place in Florida. The official sea turtle nesting season is from March 1 to October 31 in the state, with peak hatching season in June and July. The eggs typically hatch at night or in the very early hours of the morning, when it’s cooler and less exhausting. Often, you'll see their turtle prints in the sand when they've hatched overnight.
Getting out of their nests and into the water is just the first part. After they make it to the water there are more predators they have to survive in the shallow waters. But if they make it to the Sargassum seaweed line, two to four miles offshore, they have a better chance of maturing into adults and returning to the Treasure Coast to lay their own nests two or three decades later.
There are crews that walk the beach to find nest locations and mark them, so they can be staked and protected with markers and warning signs not to mess with the nest. They keep counts of nests and then walk the beaches daily to see when the nests hatch (tons of tiny turtle prints will mark the way). Then, they’ll typically give it three days and return to the nest to excavate it, which means they’ll dig in and rescue any turtles that couldn’t make it out on their own. They wait several days because it’s important for the turtles to imprint on the beach, get stronger and build the muscles they need to make it in the water. The crews will count the number of eggs that hatched and help the stragglers make it to the water. It’s a rescue mission of sorts, but only the approved volunteers are instructed to touch the turtles. Unauthorized contact is a federal offense, and can result in a $100,000 fine and even a year in jail. In Vero Beach, it’s a group called Coastal Connections that hosts the excavations, and they post on Facebook to let others know when the nest excavations are happening, limiting guests to a few dozen people.
One thing you can do to help, beyond keeping the lighting off, is to clean up the beach after you leave. Move chairs and garbage that might get in their way, and fill in any holes you dig for sand castles and such. And pick up any garbage you see, so it doesn’t end up ingested by them.
If you’re hoping to watch a hatching, there are things you can do to improve your chances. First, keep in mind it’s most likely to happen after dark. I’ve been lucky enough to see hatchings at dusk and others right at sunrise. If you inspect the nests near you, experts say you should look for a slight indentation in the sand, which is a sure sign that the turtles are working hard below the surface. Your odds are higher that they’ll hatch when it’s a cooler evening, and even higher if it just rained. And again, remember not to use a regular flashlight. Turtle-friendly red lights are encouraged for use. If you have the opportunity to go with a group led by a turtle expert in your area, be ready for a long wait, so bring snacks and drinks and a blanket to sit on. Be patient, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to witness the miracle of dozens of tiny turtles making their way to their new home in the ocean. If you see it, it’s a sight you’ll never forget.