Home Education The 2023 Escambia County sea turtle nesting statistics are in

The 2023 Escambia County sea turtle nesting statistics are in

Photo by Gulfarium CARE Center

Escambia County staff and volunteers dedicated thousands of hours this year to monitoring and protecting sea turtles and their nests on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, along with educating the community about how they can help protect sea turtles on local beaches.

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Volunteers contributed more than 1,600 hours toward conducting marine turtle nesting surveys and monitoring activities in Escambia County during the 2023 sea turtle nesting season, not counting additional hours from county Natural Resources Management and Marine Resources staff.

County staff and volunteers begin their daily sea turtle patrol on May 1 each year, patrolling Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key through the end of August in search of any sign of sea turtle nests, hatchlings, or turtles in distress.

This year, Escambia County recorded 13 loggerhead turtle nests and one green turtle nest on Pensacola Beach, along with two loggerhead turtle nests on Perdido Key.

Although the nesting numbers were lower than average for both beaches, Escambia County Marine Environmental Program Manager Mark Nicholas said volunteers and staff worked tirelessly throughout the season to protect nests and hatchlings from any negative human impacts.

“We really couldn’t do it without volunteers, so it’s pretty much a volunteer-driven program,” Nicholas said. “We have people who have been doing it a long time and some who have only been doing it a couple of years, but they really like it, and they put in a lot of time and effort into helping spread the word about turtles.”

When a sea turtle nest is discovered or reported to the turtle patrol, volunteers will place stakes around the nest, put up a sign alerting the public to the turtle eggs, and document the nest’s location using GPS. Volunteers and staff will then begin checking the nest daily, monitoring for hatchlings and intervening when necessary to help them reach the Gulf of Mexico successfully.

“About 60% of the time, the hatchlings emerge and they go the wrong way because of light pollution – so they go inland instead of into the Gulf,” Nicholas said. “So we intervene only when needed, and through a couple of different methods, we can try to get the hatchlings into the water. Luckily once they’re floating, they will orient the right way, and they’ll swim offshore where they need to be.”

Sea turtles are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Turtle Protection Act. When interacting with sea turtles or their nests, county staff and volunteers work within permit requirements as authorized through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Human impacts can be detrimental to sea turtle nesting, whether it’s using flashlights on the beach at night, littering, or leaving objects such as chairs, tents, or umbrellas on the beach, which can disorient hatchlings trying to make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Escambia County has special sea turtle lighting regulations for Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, and a “Leave No Trace” ordinance that prohibits leaving items on the beach after sunset.

Volunteers work hard to educate beach residents and visitors about how they can do their part to protect sea turtles, especially when it comes to simple steps like not using white flashlights on the beach. Volunteers have also distributed hundreds of red LED flashlights while on patrol, calling it the “Red Light at Night, Sea Turtle Delight” lighting project. Thousands of red LED flashlights have also been donated and distributed at the Pensacola Beach Visitor Information Center to encourage beachgoers to use more turtle-friendly lighting.

“We try to spread the message to have people turn down their lights, turn them off, or use red lights instead of white cell phone flashlights,” Nicholas said. “No light is best, but if we can get them to use red light instead of white light, then maybe the issue won’t be as bad.”

Stephenie Allen, who just finished her fourth sea turtle season volunteering with the turtle patrol, said light is the number one offender when it comes to losing sea turtle nests. Allen said volunteers have seen increased flashlight activity on the beach at night, whether it’s people fishing, looking for ghost crabs, or just taking a walk.

“If there’s too much white or blue light, then it’s just going to totally turn the hatchling in the direction of the light,” Allen said. “Same thing with the nesting turtles – we’ve had them end up in the strangest locations, and it’s usually due to light pollution.”

In addition to daily beach patrols, volunteers monitor the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier looking for turtles that end up accidentally hooked by fishermen. Through a partnership with the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, any injured turtles are transported to the Gulfariam to receive proper care from a veterinarian before being safely tagged and released when they are ready.

“So we have volunteers who walk the pier, hoping to be at the right place at the right time if a fisherman accidentally hooks a turtle,” Nicholas said.

Whether it’s through turtle rescues, monitoring nests, or educating the public, the turtle patrol’s main goal is to help ensure that as many sea turtle hatchlings as possible make it safely into the Gulf of Mexico.

Escambia County Marine Resources Manager Robert Turpin said the turtle patrol’s mission not only helps protect endangered and threatened sea turtle species, but it also bolsters local tourism.

“The fact that we have turtle nests on our beaches means that our beaches are good for the turtles and good for us,” Turpin said. “Sea turtles are the icing on the cake of our wildlife that use our beaches. They are a great indicator that our beaches and waterways are healthy, and they are a big part of the value that we derive from healthy beaches and coastal environments – and that benefit includes hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism. So when we’re protecting the turtles, we’re protecting our own future as well.”

To learn more about Escambia County’s “Leave No Trace” ordinance and how you can help protect sea turtles, visit the county website.

Sea turtle nesting season in Florida starts in May and ends Oct. 31. Beachgoers are reminded to be aware during sea turtle nesting season, and to never disturb nesting sea turtles or hatchlings.

To report someone disturbing a sea turtle nest or to report an injured, dead or harassed sea turtle, call Escambia County Marine Resources at 850-426-1257, 850-554-5869, or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922 (mobile phone: *FWC or #FWC). To learn more about sea turtles on Escambia County beaches, visit the county’s sea turtle page.