Turtles, turtles, turtles

It is that time of year again when one of Panama City Beach’s many seasonal environmental treasures begins . . . the yearly nesting of sea turtles. From May 1 to October 31 every year, hundreds of female Loggerhead and Green turtles head to area beaches in search of safe places to lay their eggs. These annual visits are a natural wonder that both the locals and visitors enjoy, from watching the mothers’ evening egg laying to the hatchlings brave trek back into the Gulf’s warm waters.

Although no nests have been reportedly found along the 18 miles of sand since the beginning of nesting season, experts are hopeful the mature female turtles were too far offshore to be harmed by last year’s oil spill. Since these beautiful creatures are among the oldest and largest living reptiles with flippers and streamlined shells that enable them to migrate over long distances, it is hopeful that the population will recover any setbacks from last year’s accident. Also, since individual turtles don’t nest every year, it is hopeful that many which did not nest last year will be nesting this year providing a bounty of hatchlings.

Florida sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the water, but their survival is connected to the land.  All along the Emerald Coast, and areas like St. Andrews State Park Florida in Panama City Beach, are crucial habitats for these creatures to nest. Each mother turtle seeks the cover of darkness to lay her nest of approximately 100 - 120 eggs in the sand only to return to the Gulf never to revisit the nest again. It is therefore important that if a turtle is spotted making her way up the beach that she is not disturbed and the nest then be marked for preservation.

Once they begin to hatch the baby turtles make their dangerous nighttime journey back down the sandy shore into Gulf waters. Just like their mothers, they instinctively follow the natural nighttime light to find their way to the water.  Artificial lights are restricted along the beach because many of the hatchlings can be distracted by the lights and noise and never make it to sea. But these are not the only hazards these creatures face.  There are natural predators, as well as careless beach traffic at night,  along with the trash along the beach that is mistaken for a food source.

Many turtles are rescued every year from entanglement in fishing line and injuries from boating accidents. That is why the protection of sea turtles has become an issue of significant importance in Panama City Beach. It is through the efforts of both visitors and locals that these unique creatures can be assured a safe haven to lay their eggs in hopes to replenish an endangered population which has always been an important component in Florida’s nature. Other species that nest elsewhere on Florida beaches include leatherback and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.

People interested in helping to assure safe nesting this year can contact the Bay County Tourist Development Council, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the St. Andrew Bay Resource Management Association Turtle Watch. These organizations work together and have helpful information available to protect these fragile creatures.

The following is a list that everyone is asked to observe to insure the protection of this integral part of Florida nature:

Do not shine lights on or near the turtles or take pictures or videos of them using cell phone cameras, flashes or other lighting.
If you live or vacation on the beach, turn off lights not being used and close all blinds and curtains at night.
If you see a sea turtle, do not disturb it; view quietly from a distance only.
Do not touch any Florida sea turtles (nesting adult or baby hatchling) or nests.
Stay off the dunes and use beach walkovers to access Florida beaches
Remove chairs, umbrellas, toys, and other personal items from the beach each night.
Fill in any holes you may have dug on the beach.
Dispose of all trash in refuse containers, or take it with you when you leave the beach.
When boating, be alert for swimming Florida sea turtles to avoid collisions.
Call 1-888-404-FWCC if you see a turtle or a nest being harmed.
Remember, only official representatives of Turtle Watch, the FWC or FWS can handle Florida sea turtles.

We in Panama City Beach are excitedly awaiting the arrival of the mothers to our sandy shores and glad to share our excitement with all our visitors. We hope that everybody follows these guidelines to keep our flippered friends safe so we can continue to celebrate this time of year.