By LORRAINE THOMPSON
Slowly, but surely, hundreds of endangered sea turtles, some as large as 1,500 pounds, will soon begin visiting the beaches of St. Johns County.
The female turtle drags her body from the ocean to the dunes area where she digs a nest with her back flippers and deposits nearly 100 eggs per nest. She then covers the eggs with sand and returns to the sea leaving the fate of the anticipated offspring to the elements and volunteer caretakers. Left undisturbed, after approximately two months, the eggs hatch sending the two-inch long hatchlings seaward.
Turtle and turtle nests protection regulations go into effect May 1 and are enforced through Oct. 31, or until the last nest is hatched. The regulations affect beach visitors as well as residents. They include:
- Vehicular traffic on the beach is only allowed from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Motorists who remain on the beach after that time may be subject to fines.
- All beachfront properties are required to reduce the impact of interior and exterior lighting which may impact nesting sea turtles.
- Driving areas on most beaches are one-way south only. Motorists are cautioned to obey the 10-MPH speed limit and to drive in the vehicle lane designated by the orange cones.
- Both endangered and protected species are covered by county, state and federal laws which can result in fines of up to $20,000 for tampering with or causing harm to the turtles and nests.
In 2015, a near record year for the nests, 683 nests were identified and monitored on St. Johns County beaches. A majority of those nests, 553, were on the north beaches. There were 90 nests on Anastasia Island and 40 nests in the Matanzas Inlet South beaches. An estimated 46,855 hatchlings emerged from those nests.
While that sounds like a large number, scientists estimate that only one in 100 hatchlings will survive once they leave the nest. Hatchlings have to escape a gauntlet of predators, such as shore birds, ghost crabs, and insects to make it to the sea.
During the first year after hatching, many species of sea turtles are rarely seen. This first year is referred to as the “unknown yearâ€.
The five varieties of sea turtles that inhabit the waters around Florida include the endangered Leatherback, Hawksbill and Kemps Ridley and the threatened Loggerhead and Green turtles. Green turtles were recently reclassified from the endangered list. All are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
There are additional ways that beachgoers can help:
- Remove ruts and fill in holes left by vehicles and sand castle building.
- Remove all chairs, umbrellas, or canopies from the beach before dark. These items are subject to removal by County staff.
- Stay out of the sand dunes and conservation zones (15 feet seaward of the dune line).
- Refrain from using balloons for events, as they may end up in the ocean and harm marine life.
- Never approach sea turtles emerging from or returning to the sea. Nesting sea turtles are vulnerable, timid, and can be easily frightened away.
- Never push an injured animal back into the ocean.
Â Â Â Â Â If you find a sick or injured sea turtle do not put it back into the water since it may need medical attention. Instead, call the Sheriff’s Office: (904) 824-8304. SJC Habitat Conservation: (904) 209-3740 or the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number:Â 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922)