By Nirvi Shah
Although the weather feels like anything but spring, sea turtles are already arriving along the coast for the year’s nesting trek.
Sea turtle nesting season officially began March 1 and lasts until Oct. 31, but the first reports of a leatherback crawling onto shore happened Feb. 11 in Miami-Dade County, according to Paul Davis, environmental manager for Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resource Management Department. Most sea turtle species — leatherbacks, green sea turtles, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley turtles are endangered, with one, loggerheads, listed as threatened. That makes each year’s egg-laying event critical to keeping the animals going.
Many fragile hatchlings continue to be led astray by distracting beach lighting, which lures them toward the mainland instead of the sea. Going off course means losing some of the precious energy the tiny turtles will need when they hit the water, where they spend hours swimming into open waters, safe from predators close to shore.
“This is the time to turn the lights off,” Davis said. “Check your property. Take a walk along the beach at night. If you can see lights, then the turtles can see lights.”
A county study completed last year showed 40 percent of properties along the county’s 45-mile coast were violating the county’s sea turtle lighting ordinance in some way. The county only polices 6 miles of the coast, including cities that have agreed to let the county do so, leaving other coastal municipalities to handle lighting issues on their own.
“Our goal is not that there not be any lights out there. There are ways that you can illuminate your property by redirecting the lights, placing lights at lower elevation, and changing out the bulb type and the fixture type,” he said.
Anyone who needs advice about lighting issues can simply ask the county for a recommendation about their property.
In Ocean Ridge, Town Manager Ken Schenck said residents have already received a reminder about lighting via the town newsletter and Web site.
“Most of the residents are aware of it,” he said. “Sometimes, vacationers are down here and aren’t aware of it.”
Beachgoers should steer clear of sea turtle nests, Davis said. It’s unlawful for anyone but permit holders to touch nests, signs or stakes around sea turtle nests. If you see a turtle laying her eggs, leave her alone. It could take up to three hours for her to lay more than 100 eggs the size of pingpong balls.
When you leave the beach, take toys and lounge chairs with you and make sure sailboats and other vessels or watercraft are out of sea turtles’ way to keep the creatures from running into them or becoming entangled.
People who want to build sand castles or dig in the sand shouldn’t do so on the sandy part of the beach, where they could disturb the turtles.
“If you want to build a sand castle,” he said, “do it on the wet part of the beach.”
If you see a dead sea turtle or a sea turtle in distress, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission toll free, 1-888-404-3922
For questions or advice about beach lighting, call the Department of Environmental Resources Management, 561-233-2400.