Each year from May through October, Alabama’s 47 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches play host to nesting and hatching sea turtles. While most of the visitors are loggerheads, occasionally a Kemp’s Ridley or a green sea turtle will also choose to nest here. All of the sea turtles in our waters are on the Endangered Species List as either endangered or threatened, and special care is taken by the hundreds of volunteers who work with Alabama’s Share the Beach program to make sure the mamas are able to successfully nest and to get the hatchlings to the water. With 80 nests this season, over 5,800 hatchlings have successfully begun their life in the Gulf of Mexico (a few nests are left to hatch, so final numbers are not yet available).
Share the Beach volunteers patrol Alabama’s beaches at sunrise each day from May 1 through Aug. 31 looking for the tracks left behind by the nesting loggerhead mamas. Once a turtle crawl is spotted, the volunteers determine whether mama nested or whether it was a “false crawl” with no nest. If there is a nest, the eggs are located and a determination is made whether, pursuant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit under which Share the Beach operates, to relocate the nest further north on the beach because it is too close to the water.
If the nest does need to be relocated, exact measurements are taken and the new nest is dug to match mama’s as closely as possible. Whether the nest is relocated or not, the center of the nest is marked as the eggs are covered with sand, a screen is placed over the nest to keep out predators such as coyotes and foxes, and the nest area is staked off with tape and signage marking the area as a protected sea turtle nest. The incubation period is 55 to 75 days, so as hatching time approaches, the volunteers begin monitoring the nest and will spend several nights on the beach waiting for the hatchlings to suddenly appear out of the sand and ensure that they make it to the Gulf safely.
What possesses these volunteers to give up hours of sleep for these creatures which have successfully nested on beaches for millions of years? Even though each mama will nest 2-4 times a season with approximately 100 eggs per nest (but will only nest every two to three years), it is estimated that only one hatchling out of 1,000 will survive to adulthood to reproduce due to the many obstacles they face. As eggs and hatchlings on land, they face predation from coyotes, foxes, ghost crabs, birds and other creatures. They are also in danger of drowning or being washed away in storms, elevated water tables and high tides.
Once they reach the water, they are on the menu of several marine species until they grow too large for most species to eat. While there isn’t much the volunteers can do to combat those natural obstacles, there are many manmade obstacles the volunteers try to reduce and mitigate to at least get the hatchlings to the water.
Artificial light pollution resulting from street lights, indoor and outdoor lights from beach houses, condos and beachfront businesses, as well as flashlights and flash photography on the beach at night, all serve to disorient mama sea turtles, as well as the hatchlings and steer them away from the water and toward the source of the light, which leads to the turtles getting run over in the street, falling into swimming pools, being eaten by a predator or drying out in the sun. Successful outreach efforts by the volunteers help reduce the amount of artificial white light by encouraging the use of red flashlight covers on the beach, turning off patio and balcony lights along the beach, shielding bright indoor lights by closing curtains and blinds at night, and replacing certain outdoor lights with sea-turtle friendly bulbs and fixtures.
Other manmade obstacles on the beaches include beach chairs, umbrellas, tents and toys left on the beach overnight. Mama sea turtles can get trapped by these
or will bump into them and be frightened to the point where she will return to the water without nesting. Large holes that are left unfilled after a day of fun can also be hazardous to sea turtles (and humans!), which may fall into them and not be able to climb out.