Sea turtles set strides at end of nesting season

  • Published
  • By Venessa Armenta
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The 325th Fighter Wing reported a record-breaking sea turtle nesting season at the beaches located on Tyndall Air Force Base.

Nesting season kicks off annually on May 1, and proceeds through Aug. 31. This season in particular has been nothing short of monumental.

“This has been a record year for Tyndall, but also the entire state of Florida is seeing the sharp increase of sea turtle nesting,” said Beckie Johnson, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron natural resources office wildlife biological technician. “Our previous record for sea turtle nests on our beaches was 117; [This year], we have 131.”

In addition to the increase in nests overall, there was a rise in green sea turtle nests. Last season 19 were reported, but that number more than doubled this season reaching 48.

Primarily, the base sees a mixture of mainly loggerhead sea turtles and a few green sea turtles. The loggerheads typically lay between 80 to 100 eggs in one nest while the green sea turtles can lay up to 150. 

In the U.S., all sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The act, passed in 1973, is the primary law in the country designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction.

During nesting season, Johnson and a team of volunteers, known as the Tyndall Turtle Trackers, survey the beach in the early morning hours looking for signs of new nests. Johnson, who has worked with the Natural Resources Office for nine years, can even identify the species of turtle based on the tracks it leaves behind.

“We go through [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] specific training to learn to identify species by their crawl,” explained Johnson. “The loggerhead comes up on the beach, and she alternates her flippers, so the crawl looks a little zigzagged, and then the green does like a butterfly crawl up.”

Once the team identifies where a nest has been laid, they place a small metal screen over the top and rope it off to protect it from predators and beachgoers until the eggs hatch. Hatching season starts 60 days after the first nest is laid and goes until approximately the end of October. The team monitors the nests until all eggs hatch.

“We monitor every day to ensure it’s still secure,” said Johnson. “Then, hopefully we see little, tiny baby tracks coming out in the morning.”

After a nest hatches, trained members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or Natural Resources return to excavate it three days later, taking inventory of the eggs. Any stragglers are released into the ocean at the time of excavation, and Johnson is happy to let beachgoers in on the experience.

“I did an excavation, and it was about three miles from the [beach access point],” said Johnson.” I saw some beachgoers and said, ‘Hey, come on over, I’m going to inventory this nest if you want to watch.’ I felt a little movement and thought, ‘We’ve got a baby.’ I got my bucket and pulled out a [sea turtle] hatchling. They were losing their minds because it’s so cute.”

While the team enjoys sharing the experience, they have a few requests to ensure the hatchlings make it to the ocean safely. Beachgoers are asked to avoid using flashlights at night as they can confuse the hatchlings and cause them to wander in the direction of the light instead of the water. Opting for a red or amber light can help mitigate the issue. For residents residing on or near the shoreline, turning off exterior lights at night can also reduce the possibility of disorienting the turtles.

If a sea turtle crawl is found on Tyndall’s beaches, contact Natural Resources at (850) 283-2641, and for beaches off base, contact the Florida Wildlife Alert Hotline at (888) 404-3922.