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Turtle tracks lead into the ocean.

Florida’s Sea Turtle Nesting Season: Ways to Help & Proper Protocol to Follow

We sat down with research experts from two renowned Florida marine centers – Mote Marine Laboratory (on the Gulf Coast) and Loggerhead Marinelife Center (on the East Coast) – to talk turtles.

There are a lot of things that make our Florida beach-based Opal hotels and resorts so special. On the Gulf Coast – in the Opal destinations of Clearwater Beach, Sarasota, and Naples – some may say it’s the treasured white sand and warm and calmer waters. On the East Coast – in the Opal destinations of Delray Beach, Jupiter, and Hutchinson Island – others might say it’s the ocean-side sea breezes, surf, and large swaths of seclusion. 

But did you know the bulk of all these resort beaches are based along sea turtle-nesting hot zones? Yup, it isn’t just our human guests who are frolicking to our beautiful sprawling stretches of sand. In fact, during peak turtle nesting season, the greater stretch where Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa is based can see hundreds of turtle crawls and up to 200 nests a night. Yes, you heard correctly, in one night.

“Northern Palm Beach County has the highest density for nesting loggerheads and a high number of green sea turtles and leatherbacks,” explains Sarah Hirsch, director of research at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center based in Juno Beach. Why so dense here? “Sea turtles are known to return to the same stretch of coastline where they hatched. So while it’s not 100 percent confirmed, one working hypothesis is that because the Gulf Stream cuts in really close to the coastline here, hatchlings have a shorter and easier journey out to the Gulf Stream. Therefore, they have a higher survival rate and, consequently, will return in larger numbers to this same stretch to nest as adults.”

But, in order for that to remain the case – and for all our resort beaches, whether on the Florida Gulf Coast or East Coast, to continue to experience this precious phenomenon – we all need to do our part. For those not as familiar with sea turtle etiquette, we’ve outlined six sample sea turtle scenarios that guests could find themselves in and what to do (it’s not always as obvious as you think!). But first, we’ll briefly answer a few common sea turtle nesting questions.


The general window is March through October. But it varies, depending on the particular stretch of coastline. “On the East Coast, nests can pop up as early as February and still be found hatching out as late as early November,” says Melissa Macksey, sea turtle conservation manager at Mote Marine Laboratory, headquartered in Sarasota. “Whereas, on the Gulf Coast, they can start as early as April and May with hatching completing usually by end of October.”


Because – even after multiyear, epic migrations at sea – they have an internal compass that tells them to. This compass relies on Earth’s magnetic field – specifically, as hatchlings, they learn their home beach’s unique magnetic signature, including the strength and direction of the magnetic field lines, which allows them to navigate back to the beaches where they hatched, much like how sailors use latitude and longitude. The scientific term for this is “natal homing.”


“Incubation periods are roughly two months, but there are other factors that come into play that affect the length,” explains the Loggerheads Marinelife Center’s Hirsch. “Temperature, rain, dryness – all of these things can speed up or slow down the incubation period. And again, this contributes to the overall length of our nesting season.”


There is no one singular organization. While the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is the agency that started the Statewide Nesting Beach Survey (SNBS) program back in 1979, they are not the entity that canvases the beaches every morning. They simply issue the permits for a vast and varied patchwork of local organizations that do – including marine labs and research centers, state parks, universities, non-profits, city governments, and more. A few examples of organizations in our Opal destinations: Loggerhead Marinelife Center surveys a nine-and-half-mile stretch where Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa is based; Mote Marine Laboratory surveys 35 miles in the Sarasota region where Zota Beach Resort, The Resort at Longboat Key Club, and Lido Beach Resort are; and Clearwater Marine Aquarium surveys 21 miles of beaches where Sandpearl Resort and Opal Sands Resort are set.

In fact, there is a boots-on-the-beach team responsible for patrolling all 835 miles – approximately 228 beaches – of Florida’s sea-turtle nesting coastline. To say it takes a village would be an understatement. In this case, it takes a whole state.


Simply put: they are endangered or threatened, resulting in conservation agencies needing to understand the population dynamics – and how predators, climate change, or human activities affect them. In fact, all five species of sea turtles in Florida are protected by federal and state laws.


Scenario 1: You See Turtle Tracks After Patrol Has Come Through in the Morning, But It Doesn’t Look Like Any Nests Are Marked

Does this mean the patrol team missed finding the nest or forgot to stake it? That’s less likely to be the case. Before you call the local turtle patrol to report it, there are a couple of things you can evaluate:

  • False Crawls – What are false crawls? They mean the turtle came ashore but did not nest (usually a result of disturbances like noises, lights, human activity; obstacles like beach furniture, sandcastles, trash; or the turtle simply disliking the feel of the sand). “Just because you see tracks, does not mean there will always be a nest,” says Mote’s Macksey. “In fact, 50% of turtle crawls are false crawls.” Because Mote monitors an astounding 35 miles of beach, they work in waves. The first wave will locate tracks and determine nesting activity before the second wave comes through to stake it. “If the first wave determines it’s a false crawl, they make big heel drags to mark X in several places on the false crawl. When the second wave comes through, they know not to bother looking to stake anything on tracks marked with an X.”
  • Not All Nests Get Marked in Certain Areas – Because of the high density of turtle nests on the nine-and-half miles that Loggerhead Marinelife Center monitors, it’s unrealistic to stake every single one. The beaches would be largely staked areas and impossible for the public to access. “We stake a percentage that gives us the info we statistically need and monitor that population as a whole,” says Hirsch.
  • It’s Early in the Season & Daily Patrol Hasn’t Started – This would be a situation where it is encouraged to call your local turtle patrol organization. “We don’t start patrolling until March 1, but nests have been known to pop up prior to that,” says Hirsch. Mote doesn’t start their patrol effort until May 1.

Scenario 2: There Are Marked Sea Turtle Nests on the Beach During Your Beach Day

Does this mean you can’t setup your beach spread? Of course you can. “Our Mote team completely barricades the nest, giving it a nice buffer, with multiple stakes, so as long as you’re not within those stakes, you’re good to go,” says Macksey.

On the other hand, Loggerhead Marinelife Center uses a single stake to mark their nests, so encourages a five-foot buffer around it. “Even if you were close, these nests are deep in the sand that you shouldn’t be able to disturb them. More than anything, we like the space around the nest so that we can ‘read the sand’ when we check in on our existing nests – meaning, evaluating how the sand looks to see if predation occurred or even if a nest hatched out.”

Scenario 3: There Aren’t Marked Sea Turtle Nests on the Beach During Your Beach Day

Going back to the point about not all nests getting marked in high-density areas: Just because there are no stakes doesn’t mean there aren’t nests. So just be a little extra gentle when setting up your beach spread. “It’s best not to jam your umbrella into the ground, but to use your hand to dig it out a little first. And, if you find you’ve stumbled upon a nest, bury it back up and move over a foot or two,” says Hirsch. “Also feel free to dig in the sand and build your sandcastles – we just encourage people to do it close to the waterline where there are less chances of there being nests.”

Scenario 4: You Notice a Nest That Looks to Have Been Tampered With

If you see a moved stake, broken tape, or evidence that a predator had been scouring the site, it actually probably doesn’t warrant a call to your local turtle patrol – because again, they’ll get there within less than the next 24 hours on their morning patrol. “Part of our daily surveying work is checking in on the existing nests and fixing the protective barrier,” says Mote’s Macksey. “Unfortunately, we do see evidence that people sometimes pull up the stakes and using them as props for their hats or beach towels.”

However, if you see something happening in real time – people actively vandalizing the nest, trying to spook or prod a nesting female, collecting hatchlings, or other things that don’t look kosher, Macksey says to call the local police department or FWC law enforcement hotline (888-404-3922). “Our turtle patrol teams aren’t law enforcement. FWC or local sheriff’s department will be the ones to issue criminal citations.”

“If it looks more innocent, like they hung a hat on a stake or moved it, and if you’re comfortable, you have every right to walk over and educate them on what they’re doing,” adds Hirsch. “They’ll likely appreciate it, actually.”

A marked sea turtle nest.

Scenario 5: You Stumble Across a Momma Turtle Coming Ashore to (Hopefully) Lay Her Eggs

While nesting turtles commonly come ashore in the middle of the night – therefore, usually avoiding public interaction – they do sometimes crawl during daylight hours. So how close can the public feel free to get?

“Regardless of time of day – whether you’re out at midnight or 2 p.m. – it’s always best to remain calm (don’t run up to her and make a lot of commotion) and stay behind her and out of her peripheral vision,” says Macksey. “And never ever any flash photography. These animals will return to the ocean if they get spooked.”

“In terms of recommended distance, FWC suggests at least 50 feet. You should always be far enough away not to be able to see her head,” says Hirsch. “You want to make sure she can’t see you and has a clear line of sight to wherever she is headed.”

And if you’re out at night, always leave the flashlight behind – light can result in false crawls and directional confusion. And that includes the red-light version too. “People think turtles can’t see red light at all, but they certainly can. It’s just less disturbing than your typical white light,” explains Hirsh. “But the best approach is no light at all,” adds Macksey. “You’d be surprised how well the human eye can adjust to darkness. And when you have some sort of light, it makes it harder for your eyes to acclimate, so you won’t be able to see as well or further.”

Scenario 6: You Stumble Across a Nest That is in the Midst of Hatching

You want them to reach the shoreline successfully, so should you help them? No, please do not. “We know it can be hard because it’s not the easiest journey for them and people naturally want to help, but you could be doing more harm than good,” says Hirsch, explaining that it might be possible that scrambling over the sand might be important to their “imprinting,” so they know where to return as adults. Also, this is the time they first learn to use their flippers. “I always compare it to what it might feel like if you just woke up in the morning and someone threw you directly into a pool without being able to stretch your muscles.”

That said, if you do see a hatchling really struggling or heading in the wrong direction (away from the ocean), please call your local turtle patrol team or FWC and they’ll walk you through how to handle it.


  • Close Your Blinds, Turn Off Lights – Sea turtles, particularly hatchlings, rely on the natural light from the moon and stars to guide them from their nests towards the ocean. When artificial lights are introduced, they disrupt this natural navigation mechanism, causing the turtles to become confused and veer off course. Opal resorts and hotels have stickers on balcony windows facing the ocean about remembering to draw your blinds each night, as well as turning off lights.
  • Be Aware When Digging – Only dig holes below the high-tide line, in the hard-packed sand, to avoid disturbing sea turtle nests, and avoid using shovels. Dogs are natural predators to sea turtles, so pet parents are asked to be extra mindful to ensure dogs do not dig up nests or approach/harm nesting sea turtles.
  • Return the Beach Back to How You Found It – Our Opal properties work with a third-party vendor that sets up all beach chairs, umbrellas, and cabanas each morning and removes them at night. But you can do your part to remove any other obstacles, such as dismantling your sandcastles or filling in holes. And always take your trash with you. “Our mantra is clean, dark, and flat beaches,” says Hirsch.
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