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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sand Raking and Sea Turtles

I am spending some time in St. Augustine on vacation and learning a lot about sea turtles. An amazing thing happens here on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean during the months of May through October. This is egg laying season for sea turtles. There are 5 species of sea turtles that make their way onto the beaches to lay their eggs in the soft white sand. Sadly, all of them are either endangered or threatened. The Loggerhead, Leatherback, Green, Kemp's Ridley, and Hawksbill turtles are all found in Florida and all desperately need our help.

During our time here, we haven't seen any turtles on the beach but we did experience something incredible last night. We were taking a late evening stroll on the beach and it was getting to be quite dark. We saw a vehicle driving down the beach which we thought was a bit strange at that hour. The beach is very wide so vehicles can drive and park on it during the day but must be gone by 7:30 pm (or risk being swept away by the tide). This vehicle came closer and stopped not too far from us. Two women got out of the truck and started raking the sand. It would seem a bit strange if you weren't familiar with sea turtles and their hatchlings. Sea turtle hatchlings are smaller that the palm of your hand making it very easy for them to get stuck in holes or ruts in the beach. If the beach is not smooth, the hatchlings may not be able to make it to the ocean to begin their lives. Every night during the season, turtle conservationists drive the beaches and rake the sand smooth in front of the nests  giving hatchling turtles every opportunity to make it to the ocean. This is important since only about 1 in 1000 turtles will actually make it to the breeding age of 30 years. Because they are imperiled, they need every chance they can get to survive. The nests must first be found before this late night raking begins. Early every morning, crews drive the beach and look for the tracks in the sand where a female turtle has come up on the beach to lay her eggs. When a newly laid nest is found, the nest is marked and roped off so it is not disturbed. The turtle people know when the nest was laid therefore they know about when it will hatch based on the average incubation time of 45-70 days. These dedicated people then start raking the sand ~15 days prior to the projected due date. The nests are raked every night until the nest hatches. We learned most of this from the rakers who took time from their important work to talk to us before moving onto the next nest in need. One gal worked for the county while the other was a volunteer who was an elementary school teacher by day and turtle saver by night.

Aside from turtles being hunted for their meat and shells, human influence has also led to their demise. Light pollution plays a big factor in hatchlings not making it to the sea. It is a hatchling's natural instinct to go toward light. The sky reflecting off the ocean is the light they normally aim toward but in popular tourist areas this has been a problem over the years. Hatchlings can easily get misoriented and head in directions other than the ocean and easily perish. The state now has laws in place to limit beach lighting which could include shielding the light on the beach side of the lamp or using yellow bug lights. Garbage also kills turtles. A turtle does not know that eating a plastic bag or getting taggled in fishing line could lead to her death.

I will not get on my soapbox for too long but I must say it is disheartening and disgusting that the actions of the human race have led to the demise of so many noble creatures on this planet. Please make it important in your life to help save the planet by living green (recycle, recycle, recycle) and support organizations that are trying to save them from extinction to never walk this planet again. When traveling, take time to learn about the conservation efforts in that area and support them in every way you can. Be a responsible tourist. This might be as simple as filling in the hole you dug in the sand that day or throwing your broken fishing line into the trash and not the ocean. The creatures are innocent bystanders who deserve way more respect and care than humans often give them.

For more information on Florida sea turtles: