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Sharing the Sands

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Dedicated Volunteers Make Local Beaches Sea Turtle Friendly

By: Gabriel Tynes

They are often the first people on the beach every summer day — a small army of volunteers armed with cell phones, trash bags and cameras, patrolling the sand between Fort Morgan and Orange Beach for signs of endangered life. Some of them walk for their health and others do it for the friendship and camaraderie. However, the object of their mission is often nowhere in sight.

The Share the Beach program brings volunteers together to comb the sand for sea turtle nests every morning between May and October, which is turtle nesting season. They look for the tell-tale tracks females leave behind as they drag themselves from the sea in the middle of the night to lay as many as 160 eggs.

If a nest is discovered, volunteers will make a phone call to area professionals, who evaluate it for its likelihood to hatch. Often, the nest is moved slightly inland to prevent it from being washed away or trampled, and it is clearly marked and covered with a screen to help keep out predators. The incubation period lasts around 55 days, after which about 65 percent of the eggs are likely to hatch.

Making Their Home

While the program has uncovered encouraging information, organizers say it is still too young to provide many clues about the overall welfare of the state’s sea turtle population.

According to Kelly Reetz, a naturalist at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, volunteers have identified at least 15 sea turtle nests along Alabama beaches as of this past June. In 2006, there were 46 — eight more than they found in 2005.

“It has been fairly productive lately,” Reetz said in June. “Our first turtle this year was a Kemps Ridley, one of the more scarce species, so we were especially excited about that.”

Although several species of sea turtles live and breed in the Gulf of Mexico, the loggerhead is by far the most frequent turtle to grace Alabama sand. In fact, as many as 95 percent of the nests discovered in recent years have held loggerhead eggs. 

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“I don’t know if that is saying something about the numbers of other species or the wider range of the loggerhead,” Reetz said. She also emphasized that Alabama is on the western-most end of sea turtle nesting areas in the United States, and therefore sees less variety in nesting turtle species.

Indeed, Alabama records far fewer turtle nests each year than other coastal states like Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. But that doesn’t make the local habitat any less important to their survival.

“I think if the turtles just stopped nesting here altogether that would indicate something about our effect on the environment,” Reetz said. “But from what I’ve seen, mother turtles are resilient, and they will nest just about anywhere there is sand. What you have to worry about are the hatchlings.”

Baby Steps

Reetz said a major problem with human encroachment onto turtle nesting grounds is that lights from nearby developments can confuse the hatchlings, and lead them to travel in the wrong direction, often toward their death.

“Instinctively, the hatchlings are looking for the flatness of water and the light from the moon and the stars,” she said. “Imagine being less than one inch tall and looking behind you to see dunes that look like mountains. Meanwhile, in the other direction, there is the moon and the stars and the sea and it should be enough to get you to go into the water.” 

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Reetz said in the areas where the dunes have been flattened and high-rise condos have created an artificial sky, turtle hatchlings are prone to wander in the opposite direction than they need to go. Reetz remembers one occasion when she was called to a condominium complex where a nest full of turtle hatchlings and fallen into a swimming pool and storm drain.

“There was a pelican there just having its way with them,” Reetz said. “When you see something like that, you really realize how helpless they are.”

A Helping Hand

While the volunteer program has reduced such incidences to a minimum, sea turtle welfare ultimately depends on cooperation from several different parties. For its part, Baldwin EMC turns or shades street lights along Fort Morgan and West Beach roads where sea turtles have been known to nest in the past. Other organizations promote habitat conservation or the use of special devices to help exclude sea-going turtles from fishing nets.

Second-year Share the Beach volunteer Sandi Caudill walks a portion of Gulf State Park every Friday along with her husband and three others. Together, they have discovered two nests this year — both loggerheads. They believe they are really making a difference, and are excited about witnessing the hatching of their two nests, which are due sometime this month.

“That is when you know what you’re doing matters,” Caudill said. “The entire process is satisfying, but being able to see the hatchlings crawl toward the water will be the most fulfilling part of it. Without volunteers, many of the eggs wouldn’t stand a chance.”

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Although total population figures are a mystery, all sea turtles remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, which makes it a felony to disturb nesting females, their eggs, or their hatchlings. Anyone who spots a beached or nesting turtle should call state wildlife authorities. Meanwhile, Share the Beach is always looking for willing and reliable volunteers, and anyone wishing to contribute may call 866-Sea-Turtle.