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Sea Turtles

Sea Tutles
Sea Turtles are one of the endangered species living in Palm Beach County. Read the article below to learn more about these amazing animals.

Introduction to Sea Turtles:
Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles remarkably adapted to life in the sea. A streamlined shape, large size and powerful foreflippers enable them to dive to great depths and travel long distances. Although at home on the ocean, sea turtles are tied to the land because females must leave the water to lay their eggs in a sandy beach. Much of the research on sea turtles has focused on nesting females and hatchlings emerging from nests because these are the easiest to find and study. Thousands of nesting turtles have been tagged to gather information about their reproductive cycles and movements. In recent years research efforts have broadened, and new technologies such as satellite tracking have been used to learn more about sea turtles during other phases of their lives. After decades of research, much has been learned -- and many questions remain.

Sea turtles once roamed the oceans by the millions, but over the past few centuries the demand for sea turtle meat, eggs, shell, leather and oil has greatly reduced their number. Populations continue to decline because of the trade in sea turtle products and the loss of essential habitat. Thousands of sea turtles drown in shrimp trawls every year and others die from pollutants and non-degradable debris in the ocean. Concern for the plight of sea turtles is growing and around the world, conservationists, governmental agencies, public and private organizations, corporations and individuals are working to protect sea turtles on nesting beaches and at sea "From Florida's Sea Turtles, Copyright 1992, Florida Power & Light Company."

Sea Turtles in Palm Beach County:
Palm Beach County's beaches are unique. We have a large population of people living on and using beaches that are critically important for sea turtle nesting in the United States. Every day, thousands of people play on the beaches which are a nursery for hundreds of thousands of sea turtle eggs during the summer months. Conflicts arise from our activities, including coastal development, that have a direct effect on the continued survival of sea turtles.

Sea turtles have been swimming the oceans for more that 100 million years and have been using our beaches, reefs and estuaries long before man settled in Florida. Sea turtle populations have declined, however, in recent years because of man's activities and they are now "Endangered" and "Threatened" species. This means that steps must be taken to stop their decline or they may become extinct. Those of us who live and play in Palm Beach County have a special opportunity and responsibility to protect these creatures and their vulnerable nesting and feeding grounds. A number of researchers, volunteer groups and agencies are at work monitoring nesting beaches and conducting research to learn more about sea turtles.

Map of beach survey boundaries for Palm Beach County in 1999.
Loggerhead turtles lay the vast majority of nests in the County with the green turtle and leatherback turtle accounting for the remainder of the nests. Two other species also can be found in our off-shore waters, the hawksbill and the very rare Kemp's ridley. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the leatherback, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley sea turtles as "endangered" species; and the loggerhead sea turtle as a "threatened" species.

Beachfront Lighting:
Palm Beach County is leading the way in sea turtle protection. The County's Board of County Commissioners has recognized the importance of our beaches to the sea turtles and passed the Palm Beach County Sea Turtle Protection Ordinance in 1987, one of the first in the state. The County's Department of Environmental Resources Management is responsible for implementing measures designed to protect sea turtles and urges everyone to learn more about these magnificent creatures.

Lights which shine onto the beach during sea turtle nesting season (March 1 to October 31) adversely affect adult sea turtles and hatchlings by misorienting them away from the ocean. Beachfront lighting is regulated by ERM in certain areas of the County, by the Unified Land Development Code (ULDC) Section 9.1, titled the "Sea Turtle Protection and Sand Preservation" ordinance.

ERM is charged with the implementation of the Sea Turtle Protection and Sand Preservation Ordinance. This law requires that all coastal construction adhere to strict guidelines to eliminate impacts to sea turtles, prevent any more lights from being installed along the beach and require that no lights be visible from the beach from March 1 through October 31.

Map of jurisdictional boundaries for Section 9.1.
Municipalities which are within the jurisdiction of Section 9.1 include: Tequesta, Jupiter Inlet Colony, Jupiter, North Palm Beach, Riviera Beach (Singer Island), Palm Beach Shores, Lake Worth, Lantana, Manalapan and Boynton Beach. Please call our office at (561) 233-2400 to confirm if a particular property is within the limits of the jurisdictional boundaries of Section 9.1. Additional lighting guidelines are available via two reports:

ERM conducted a study to evaluate the effect of correcting lighting on reducing sea turtle disorientations. This study found that by reducing the number of lights visible from thebeach, fewer disorientation events and fewer numbers of disoriented hatchlings were observed, which resulted in a lower percentage of nests disoriented.

For additional information on correcting problem lights, please see the Lee County Department of Community Development website at: http://www.lee-county.com/dcd/Environmental/STLighting.htm

Sea Turtle Nesting:
Palm Beach County's beaches are some of the most densely nested in the United States. Sea turtles can be found in our waters year round, but in the spring and summer, large numbers of adults congregate off our beaches and along the reefs. Look at these graphs that show the high nesting density for Loggerhead and Green turtles, as compared to the rest of the east coast of the United States.

Nesting on our beaches begins as early as March. The early nesters are usually leatherbacks with the more numerous loggerheads arriving in significant numbers in May. Nesting continues into August and tapers off in early September. The female sea turtle crawls ashore at night to dig a nest, deposit her eggs, cover the nest and return to the water. While on the beach, sea turtles are timid and vulnerable and can be easily frightened away if disturbed. It takes between one to three hours for the female turtle to lay her approximately 110 ping pong ball-size eggs.

A number of researchers, volunteer groups and agencies monitor sea turtle nesting in Palm Beach County. These surveys are conducted during nesting season by trained staff/volunteers permitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Nests are identified to species by the turtle's tracks and size/shape of the nest.

ERM collects sea turtle nesting data from four beaches in Palm Beach County, including Tequesta (Coral Cove), Jupiter/Carlin, Lake Worth Inlet (northern end of Palm Beach) and Ocean Ridge. View current data (updated monthly) for these four beaches. Please note that the current data is the best available information, and that the data are subject to change.

Nesting data for several years is also available for Juno Beach, a 5.5 mile section of beach monitored by the Marinelife Center of Juno Beach. The Juno Beach area has some of the highest nesting densities of Leatherback sea turtles in the United States. In fact, northern Palm Beach County has much higher nesting densities overall than south county. View the 1997 Palm Beach County density distribution as nests/mile and nests/kilometer. Other organizations/individuals within Palm Beach County that monitor the beach include: John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, Sea Turtle Conservation League of Singer Island, Barbara Kissas (Palm Beach Shores), Nebojsa Garic (Palm Beach Breakers), John Fletemeyer (Palm Beach Midtown and Delray), Bob Schonfeld (Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course to Kreusler Park and South Palm Beach), Manuel Mesa (Kreusler Park and Gulfstream Park), Mark Myhre (Lake Worth Municipal Beach), Rob Caldwell (Lantana and Manalapan - Ritz), Bob Wershoven (Manalapan), Robert Taylor (Ocean Ridge/Boynton Beach and Gulfstream), Jose Echeverria (Highland Beach) and Gumbo Limbo (Boca Raton).

The Incubating Nests and Hatchlings:
The eggs and nests must remain undisturbed in the warm sand for 47 to 60 days before they hatch. The nests are located approximately 12 to 18 inches below the surface, and are generally found above the high tide line on the dry beach and sometimes up into the dune vegetation.

Early nests will begin to hatch in May with the majority of hatching occurring in July through September, continuing on through October. The baby sea turtles usually emerge from their nests at night and as a group. In a natural situation, they crawl down the beach to the water where they must swim for many hours to reach the open sea.

In urban areas of the County, artificial lights on the beach and near the coastline can confuse the hatchlings, making it difficult for them to find the ocean. When this happens, most of the hatchlings die from exhaustion, dehydration and predators

Threats to Sea Turtles in Palm Beach County:
Man is the Number One threat to sea turtles in our county. Sea turtles have many natural hazards such as sharks, fish, birds, ghost crabs and erosion of nests, but they have faced these hazards for millions of years and have adapted to them. However, in the last few decades in Palm Beach County, man has added unnatural hazards such as: buildings and seawalls on the dunes and beaches, illumination of the beach and coastal areas, plastics, styrofoam and fishing line littering the beach, tractors being driven on the beaches to manicure them, people disturbing sea turtles as they nest at night, and a steady increase in boating and fishing activity.

What You Can Do to Help Protect Our Sea Turtles:
Sea turtle populations will continue to decline without your support and assistance. The following are suggestions of ways you can help save our sea turtles:

  • Avoid visiting the sea turtle nesting beaches at night during the summer unless accompanied by a guide permitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
  • Do not disturb or handle any sea turtles, their eggs or their nests. All are violations of both federal and state laws.
  • Report all dead, injured or stranded turtles and hatchlings or anyone harassing/molesting sea turtles or their nests to the Florida Marine Patrol at 1-800-DIAL-FMP.
  • Prevent all lights from illuminating or being visible from the beach including security lights, balcony and porch lights, flashlights and car headlights. These lights are responsible for the deaths of thousands of hatchlings every year and can be eliminated or modified easily to avoid impacts.
  • Encourage beachfront resorts, restaurants and developments to use unobtrusive lighting.
  • Reduce litter and marine debris by disposing of your trash properly, picking up any plastics and fishing line you see and participating in community beach clean-ups.
  • Prevent pets from disturbing nesting females, digging up nests and eating hatchlings.
  • Do not drive any motor vehicles on the beach.
  • Avoid digging deep holes or sticking poles into the sand, such as beach umbrellas.
  • Cooperate with local groups monitoring sea turtles by not disturbing nest markers. Do not cover sea turtle tracks or mark nests yourself unless you have a marine turtle permit from the FDEP.
  • Operate your boat with an awareness that sea turtles congregate in our waters in high numbers, particularly in the summer, and may be difficult to see when they surface to breathe.
  • Support local conservation groups that monitor sea turtles.

Sea Turtle Walks:
If you are heading for the beach at night to observe nesting sea turtles, it is advisable to go with an authorized guide. Guided sea turtle walks are available from May to July. Participants are able to view a nesting sea turtle with a trained guide permitted by the State of Florida. Individuals are encouraged to participate in these walks which provide the viewers with additional information and are conducted under strict guidelines to reduce disturbance to sea turtles. Group walks are available in various part of Palm Beach and adjacent counties or statewide.

Important Contacts:
Report beachfront lighting problems to Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management (561) 233-2400 .
Report injured or dead sea turtles to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tequesta at (561) 575-5455 OR Florida Marine Patrol at 1-800-DIAL-FMP. Report violations, harassment or poaching to Florida Marine Patrol at 1-800-DIAL-FMP .

Used by permission from the Department of Environmental Resources Management website.

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