DESTIN — Johnny Springfield laid down on his belly in the sand in front of Silver Shells Condominiums and started digging a hole in the beach.
After a few minutes, he pulled out what can only be described as a deflated, leathery ping pong ball and sat it beside him.
One after another, Springfield pulled out the remains of a Loggerhead sea turtle nest that had recently hatched and meticulously observed any unhatched eggs for damage or signs of life. In all, Springfield pulled 108 hatched eggs out of the nest and four unhatched eggs.
“Only one out of a thousand of these make it back into the Gulf,” Springfield said. “So if we get maybe one out of this nest that made it back, that’s a good thing.”
As the peak of sea turtle nesting season gets underway in Northwest Florida, volunteers like Springfield and Sara Gray spend their mornings and evenings combing local beaches for signs of new nests or, more common now toward the tail end of nesting season, signs of nests that have finally hatched.
Not counting Henderson Beach State Park, turtle watch volunteers in Okaloosa County have logged 17 nests in Destin and none on Okaloosa Island so far this summer, according to Springfield. The nest they evaluated Tuesday night was the fifth hatching so far this season, and they don’t expect the others to fall too far behind.
“Somebody patrols the beach every morning to check and see if they find tracks or a nest, and if they do they put the stakes and signs around it,” Springfield said. “After that, we know to wait approximately 60 days for it to hatch.”
In Destin, Emerald Coast Turtle Watch has state-licensed volunteers tasked with logging each nest and evaluating the nest after it’s hatched. The group has recently started inviting the public to the nest evaluations in an effort to educate people about the delicate nature of sea turtle nests and the importance of keeping the beaches clean, dark and flat so turtles can nest safely.
Sara Gray, whose father George Gray started the Emerald Coast Turtle Watch group in the 1990s, stood over the nest Tuesday night as Springfield pulled the hatched eggs out. She talked to the crowd of about 30 people who had gathered around and answered questions about sea turtles, their habitat and their nesting habitats.
“We think it’s really important that people are able to appreciate and respect these nests and the turtles who lay them,” Gray said of inviting the public to the nest evaluations. “We try to tell them to stop using white lights and to pick up their trash.”
Loggerhead and green sea turtles are the most common types of turtles to nest on the Emerald Coast, although turtle watchers were elated this year when two Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered sea turtle in the world, laid their eggs on Destin beaches.
Unfortunately, one of the Kemp’s ridley nests was buried under too much sand and didn’t hatch, according to Gray. The second nest, containing 130 baby Kemp's, hatched Aug. 12.
Nesting sea turtles run into several challenges, Gray said. Trash, beach equipment and unfilled holes in the sand pose dangers to sea turtles who can become entangled in trash or equipment and stuck in holes. Because turtles can only move forward, they aren’t able to get themselves out of sticky situations like some other animals.
Gray said the nesting mother turtles aren’t the only ones who are subject to human threats.
“We’ve never seen anything like the amount of nest vandalism that has been going on this year,” she said. “I just don’t understand it.”
Although each sea turtle nest is marked with stakes, fluorescent neon tape and warning people of the federal penalties for messing with nests, volunteers have continuously found adult footprints across nests and signs that they’ve been tampered with.
A person who knowingly harasses a sea turtle or disturbs a nest faces civil penalties of up to $25,000 and criminal penalties up to $100,000, in addition to one year in prison, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But there was no sign of animosity toward turtles on Tuesday night, as the crowd “oohed” and “aahed” with each egg that was pulled out and placed into a pile. When all the eggs had been counted, Springfield placed them all back in the hole, covered with sand, picked up the stakes and left.
“They go back to nature,” he said of the shells. “It’s where they belong.”