Tourists meet turtles: Volunteers talk education as turtle season begins

Sea turtle nest No. 1 was found this week in Seagrove by Ann Stuart. It is a Loggerhead.

The turtles are back.

The first sea turtle nest of the season in South Walton was discovered Monday morning in Seagrove. It's a loggerhead.

With the turtle nesting season underway, The Sun asked South Walton Turtle Watch President Sharon Maxwell what we might expect this season.

"Expect not to expect," she said with a laugh. "I knew we would be late due to the cooler temperatures this spring."

Nesting season officially begins May 1 and runs through Oct. 31. While the start of the 2013 is later than usual, Maxwell says she remembers when the first nest wasn’t found until June 1.

Maxwell said there is not a problem with the turtles getting a later start except that later nests have a greater chance of being impacted by tropical storms as hurricane season opens June 1.

Incubation time is typically 60 days in the sand. Most of the nests South Walton sees are loggerheads, followed by green sea turtles.

The biggest challenge the Turtle Watch organization has is educating the public while they walk the beach looking for signs of turtle nesting.

Turtle season and tourism collide every year in our area.

Maxwell tries to education the public about lights on the beach at night, and the danger they pose for turtles wanting to come ashore to nest.

While Kemp's ridleys will come ashore during the day, the others come ashore at night with the stars and moonlight as their guide. Lighting on the beach, as well as obstacles such as beach toys and trash left on the beach can result in the female turning around and going back into the water without laying her eggs.

In the same vein, hatchlings typically break out of their shells at night and instinctively head toward the brightest light.

Maxwell said if you're on the beach and encounter a sea turtle, stay back and call the sheriff's office, which will in turn call her.

Maxwell received a call Sunday morning from Walton County Beach Patrol Officer Jason Day, telling her there was a sea turtle close to shore behind the Whale's Tail that did not seem able to go underwater.

Maxwell called one of her Turtle Watch volunteers to go down and check on the situation.

By the time volunteer Erica Magera arrived, Day and a vendor had gone into the water and picked up the small turtle, taken it ashore, and removed a hook that was caught in its neck. The turtle was a Kemp's ridley, and the men covered it with a wet towel until Magera arrived. She determined that the turtle appeared healthy.

Magera called Gulf World and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and the three entities made the joint decision that since the turtle seemed lively, the least stressful thing to do for the turtle would be to take it back out past the second sand bar and let it go.

That strategy seemed to work as it swam away, said Magera.

South Walton Turtle Watch is made up of a group of volunteers (about 50) who work together with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife to track, mark, monitor, and evaluate sea turtle nests and turtles. The South Walton chapter was founded in April 1995 by Maxwell.

South Walton saw a whopping 97 nests last year, while the average year sees 30 to 35.

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