Sea Turtles at Blowing Rocks Preserve
The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect these creatures in south Florida since the early 1980's.
Yes, they’re cute. And they’re tiny. And they waddle down the beach on a dangerous journey toward the surf to begin life in the ocean. Since the early ‘80s, The Nature Conservancy’s team of biologists at Blowing Rocks Preserve in Hobe Sound have waited like nervous parents for the newborns to make their way into the water without incident. The sea turtles have a tough go of it from the beginning, but the Conservancy is there to help. This year, we acted as lifeguards to more than 25 hatchlings who needed a helping hand before getting into the water.
“Every morning during nesting season our team patrols the beach looking for turtles that need our help. A little bit of help can make a big difference,” said Sarah Martin, The Nature Conservancy’s south Florida land conservation coordinator, who leads the Sea Turtle Rescue Program.
South Florida turtle nesting season runs from the beginning of March to the end of October. The little turtles face many challenges, even in the nest before they hatch. Storms and hurricanes can bury nests in sand destroying them or washing them out to sea. When hatchlings make it out of their nests and head toward the waves, they’re exposed to heat and predators, and must fight the odds against dehydration and birds, crabs, snakes, and raccoons. At Blowing Rocks Preserve, the natural rock ridge that runs along the beach creates spray from crashing waves at high tide. The rock has many crevices, and hatchlings can become stuck in the gaps when they begin their crawl from nest to sea.
“The Anastasia limestone that makes our beach so beautiful can create a challenge for turtles,” conceded Blowing Rocks Preserve Manage, Cristin Krasco. “That’s why our Sea Turtle Rescue Program is essential. We provide the nesting turtles and hatchlings that are caught in the rocks with safe passage.”
One to five mature breeding females and five to 30 hatchlings are rescued each year at Blowing Rocks.
The sea turtles that nest at the preserve are federally listed as endangered or threatened. In fact, all species of turtles in Florida are listed. Leatherback, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley and Green sea turtles use Florida’s beaches and nearshore waters. Annually at the preserve, Loggerhead nests are by far the most abundant, numbering in the hundreds, followed by Green and Leatherback sea turtles.
“Florida’s Atlantic coast is the world’s primary location for Loggerhead sea turtle nesting,” said Martin. “With so many Loggerheads nesting at Blowing Rocks, we feel it is a critically important location for them.”
At times the limestone on the beach is almost completely covered in sand, allowing breeding turtles to make their way up the beach from the ocean before dawn to lay their eggs. The beach is a dynamic system, and as summer progresses ocean tides may carry sand out to sea, and the rocky outcroppings become exposed. This situation makes a difficult journey for the hatchlings. Many became stuck in the deep cracks and crevices of the limestone.
“Our team was vigilant in scanning for stranded turtles and other marine life in peril each day,” said Martin. “When we spot healthy, stuck hatchlings, we return them to the ocean.”
Sea turtles play an important role in the marine ecosystem, influencing the diversity and habitat of their environment and helping to maintain a balance. They consume a range of food sources including seagrasses and seaweed, jellyfish and crustaceans. They migrate vast distances to mate and nest. During their lives, sea turtles face man-made dangers such as water pollution including trash and boating and fishing debris. Their successful nesting is impacted by development and habitat encroachment, beach lighting, and poaching or harvesting. Methods to protect beaches and developed areas such as beach renourishment and coastal hardening like bulkheads and seawalls, are also obstacles.
While sea turtles have existed for 110 million years, the species living today face an uncertain future. All Florida sea turtle species are threatened or endangered. Before protection sea turtles were poached to near extinction for their eggs, meat, skin and shells. The sale of sea turtle shells is illegal in the U.S. and buying sea turtle shell products is illegal in most countries, although trade on the black market continues.
Sea turtles also face shark and nest predation. Climate change also has impacts—warming ocean temperatures, rising seas, and stronger, more frequent storms alter natural habitats. Only about one in 1,000-10,000 marine turtles survive into adulthood, and depending on the species, it may be 15 to 50 years for the animal to reach its sexual maturity. Female sea turtles may breed every two to four years, and often return to the same stretches of beach where they were born, making it even more critical to protect current nesting areas.
There are occasionally some ‘wash backs’—young turtles who are weak who sadly ended up back on the beach in less than good health. Once found, they received immediate care. Post-hatchling wash back are taken to nearby Loggerheard Marinelife Center, after rescue along the shoreline. Occasionally sea turtles are found to have deadly plastics in their digestive tract. Pollution of this type is a serious threat to the health of marine life.
Over the years, the program has successfully aided in the rescue and release of hundreds of turtles. Occasionally female nesting turtles will become wedged in the rocks, and a team from The Nature Conservancy and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will work to free them and safely release them back to the ocean.
The Conservancy is doing all it can to ensure safe nesting areas and a secure future for sea turtles, from our efforts to protect and restore coastal habitat and our waters, to our Sea Turtle Rescue Program at Blowing Rocks Preserve. If you find a sea turtle in distress, call the FWC to report its location and for further direction. To report someone disturbing a sea turtle nest or an injured, dead or harassed sea turtle call: 888-404-FWCC (3922).