Visiting During Turtle Nesting Season? Here’s What to Know
With its pristine sand and blue waters, the stretch of beach in front of Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa is a vacationer’s dream. But what guests might not realize is that it’s also a popular destination for non-human visitors: three species of endangered sea turtles. The Treasure Coast — a section 80 miles long on Florida’s East Coast that includes Jensen Beach on Hutchinson Island — is one of the most important sea turtle nesting areas on earth.
Visiting during turtle nesting season? Here’s what you need to know about these ancient sea creatures and how you can play a part in clearing the way for their hatching and survival.
HUTCHINSON SHORES AND SEA TURTLE CONSERVATION
“We have an incredible stretch of beach that is heavily populated by several different types of turtles,” says Ed Griffith, General Manager of Hutchinson Shores. The green turtle, the leatherback, and the loggerhead all nest in this area — in fact, 90 percent of the world’s loggerhead reproduction occurs in Florida.
Throughout the spring and summer, thousands of sea turtles enact a 100-million-year-old ritual, crawling onto the beaches at night to lay clutches of eggs. Once they hatch 45 to 60 days later, the baby turtles make the return trip, heading back down to the sea to begin the cycle over again.
Sharing the beach with sea turtles young and old makes for a unique vacation experience. It’s not quite eco-tourism, but rather a peaceful co-existence in which humans have learned to respect the ancient rhythms of these marine creatures and support them in their journeys to and from the surf. The resort has embraced its part in this effort by hosting educational programming during nesting season, in partnership with two local nonprofits, Ecological Associates, Inc. (EAI) and the Florida Oceanographic Society (FOS). Resort guests and local residents can watch sea turtle nests being excavated after the hatchlings have departed, and learn why this is a critical aspect of preservation work.
“Our guests really wanted to sign up for a turtle walk but the local options were usually full, so we thought about how we could do our own program by partnering with these local organizations,” says Griffith. “It’s a very special program and we get amazing feedback from our guests.” The resort also runs special Rest & Nest offers during the nesting season, with discounted nights and turtle-related perks like complimentary cocktails and a souvenir stuffed plush turtle.
WHEN DO SEA TURTLES NEST IN FLORIDA?
The official sea turtle nesting season in Florida is from March 1 to October 31. The nests on Hutchinson Island are laid as early as April and more densely in May and June; peak hatching season is generally in June and July, and the eggs typically hatch at night, so the babies won’t get exhausted by the heat as they make their way to the ocean depths — a journey that’s fraught with danger.
“One out of every 10,000 loggerheads make it to adulthood,” says EAI’s Lauren Maline, who co-created the Hutchinson Shores program. Traversing the sand is just the first leg of the trip; there are also predators galore in the shallow waters. Once the turtles make it to the Sargassum seaweed line, two to four miles offshore, they have a better chance of maturing into adults and, in another 25 to 30 years, returning to the Treasure Coast to lay their own nests.
Crews work throughout the season to identify and stake off the nest locations, counting “every single turtle that crawls out of the ocean,” Maline says. Once the eggs have hatched, the nests are excavated, to gather data on the quantity of eggs laid and the number of turtles who emerged. Maline explains that they first give the turtles a chance to make their own way: “We always wait at least three days after hatching before excavating — that 72 hours allows them to go to the water on their own. It’s important for them to imprint on the beach, gain strength, and get the muscles they need to make it out into the middle of the ocean.”
Along with yielding a number of unhatched eggs, excavations often reveal a few live stragglers that EAI staff safely transport to the water. (Guests should not try this on their own if they spot a hatchling in transit; specialized knowledge is required in order to help rather than harm the babies.) Those rescue missions are part of the enjoyment for program participants, who also get a crash course in sea turtle science and lore.
“Because Hutchinson Shores is a busy hotel that caters to a diverse clientele, we’re able to reach people who aren’t from the area and aren’t even aware that they’re sharing the beach with sea turtles that come out in the evening,” explains Zack Jud, PhD, Director of Education and Exhibits at FOS. The organization also offers nighttime turtle walks and operates a Coastal Center on Hutchinson Island, where visitors can feed stingrays in the Interaction Aquarium and get an up-close look at four disabled sea turtles in permanent residence.
3 WAYS TO PROTECT SEA TURTLES
While resort guests are strongly discouraged from directly interacting with sea turtles, they can play a part in clearing the way for mothers to lay their eggs, and for hatchlings to make it out of the nests and into the ocean. The keywords when it comes to turtle protection are dark, flat, and clean.
“Sea turtles, both adults and hatchlings, are extremely sensitive to any kind of artificial light,” Jud explains. “The mother might abandon her nestlings if there is artificial light around, and the nestlings can become disoriented.” Guests are asked to close their blinds at night so lights from the ocean-facing rooms won’t disorient the turtles, stay off the beach at night during the season, and, if they do venture out, avoid using flashlights, cellphone lights, or flash photography.
Second, beachgoers are asked to clear up their patch of sand at the end of the day. “Turtles are not built for crawling, they’re built for swimming,” Jud points out. “Things like beach furniture, umbrellas, or even sandcastles can become obstacles, so we ask people at the end of the day to bring their stuff off the beach, flatten sandcastles, and fill in holes.”
Third, “turtles and trash don’t mix very well,” Jud says. They may ingest discarded balloons and plastic bags, which can be deadly, so visitors should clean up their garbage (and ideally, help pick up trash they didn’t create as well).
These messages are reinforced with plentiful reminders around the resort. “There’s lots of information on the property,” Griffith says. “We do everything we possibly can to educate guests.” With the addition of the excavation program, visitors gain not only information but also inspiration to help save the sea turtles and their fellow sea creatures.
“One of our big goals is to inspire a sense of wonderment and help people appreciate marine organisms and ecosystems more than they have in the past,” Jud says. “They develop a new sense of empathy for threats that are facing our oceans.”