Photograph by Ted McLaren
During the summer nesting season on Florida's central Atlantic coast, thousands of female loggerheads emerge from the surf and laboriously haul themselves across the sand. Using flippers as shovels, each loggerhead digs a nest, then deposits and covers her eggs before crawling back into the ocean. Witness this amazing spectacle by joining a guided turtle walk.
Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Juno Beach
Loggerhead Marinelife Center biologists have been monitoring the nesting sea turtle population along northern Palm Beach County beaches since 1989. The annual tally consistently averages 12,000 leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtle nests. "Our particular stretch of beach is one of the most densely nested beaches in the world for loggerhead sea turtles," says Tom Longo, Loggerhead Marinelife Center senior communications manager. "Our campus also features a state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital where sick and injured animals rehabilitate for their hopeful return to the ocean. Visitors can get an up-close view of our patients in outdoor recovery tanks and through large viewing windows." To observe nesting loggerheads, join one of the center's guided nighttime turtle walk programs, offered Wednesday through Saturday evenings during June and July. Beach scouts patrol the sand and alert guides via radio when a nesting loggerhead female has arrived to begin the egg laying process. The guides then lead small groups (programs are limited to 30 participants nightly) down to the beach to witness the egg laying process.
Hobe Sound Nature Center, Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, Hobe Sound
The Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge maintains over a thousand acres of endangered and threatened habitats, including coastal mangroves, sand pine scrub, and 3.5 miles of pristine barrier island beach. The beach, one of the nation's most productive sea turtle nesting areas, is where Hobe Sound Nature Center guides lead nighttime turtle walks. Programs are held from late May through mid-July, and, if a turtle's natural timetable coincides, could include observing a nesting female loggerhead. Each walk is limited to 30 people and begins with a brief sea turtle orientation program at the nature center, located five minutes (by car) from the beach. When, and if, a turtle is spotted, the nesting portion of the walk lasts about an hour.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Melbourne Beach
This 20.5-mile-long coastal stretch from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach is named for world-renowned sea turtle expert Dr. Archie Carr, Jr. The Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), the world's first sea turtle research and conservation group, was started in response to a book Carr wrote, and he served as the group's founding scientific director. From mid-May until August, the STC offers guided tours (limit 22 people) to see sea turtles nesting at night in the Carr Refuge. The turtle walks include an educational presentation that begins at the Barrier Island Center on Melbourne Beach. "The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is the most important sea turtle nesting beach in the United States," says David Godfrey, STC executive director. "More loggerhead and green turtles nest here than on any other beach in North America, and the Carr Refuge also is the only federal refuge established specifically to protect sea turtle nesting habitat."
Practical Tip: Because turtles determine the schedule, the length of each Loggerhead Marinelife Center nighttime turtle walk varies. The program begins at 9 p.m., and a nesting turtle could appear at any point in the evening. Turtle nesting views are not guaranteed, however, and no refunds are given if a turtle does not come ashore.
When to Go: On Florida's east coast, early nests start hatching in late June and early July. This is an ideal time to visit the Loggerhead Marinelife Center since baby hatchlings are routinely kept (and can be viewed) in holding tanks before they're released into the ocean,
What to Bring: Wear long pants, shirts, and covered shoes, and bring insect repellent and water. No flash photography or flashlights are allowed.
What to Read Before You Go: Download the free You Can Help Protect Sea Turtles environmental education pamphlet produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Best Bet: Summer turtle walk programs are extremely popular and sell out quickly since space is limited to small groups each evening. Online registration begins April 1 for the Hobe Sound Nature Center and May 1 for the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and the Loggerhead Marinelife Center.
Fun Fact: On average, a loggerhead sea turtle nest, or clutch, contains between 100 and 126 eggs. Incubation takes about 60 days but can vary widely depending on the temperature of the sand surrounding the nest. Warmer sand speeds development and tends to produce more female hatchlings.
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