Every spring and summer, one of earth’s great marvels unfolds on beaches around the world. Sea turtle nesting is one of prehistoric earth’s last great holdouts, 100 million years in the making, where lumbering reptilian leviathans search out the same beach from which they hatched in order to lay clutches of eggs just below the sand. All along Florida’s coast, thousands of turtles lay millions of eggs, making the state’s beaches some of the most prolific rookeries in the world, with Palm Beach County pulling some significant weight (according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Palm Beach County recorded 24,198 loggerhead nests in 2015, roughly 27 percent of the state total).
Because PBC’s beaches are such a vital part of sea turtle survival, a number of local organizations help monitor, research, and protect these endangered and threatened species. As part of their mission, educating the public is of vital import, and there is nothing better than a little hands-on experience to make a lasting impression. To this end, nighttime turtle walks, led by trained naturalists, bring guests to the beach to observe sea turtle nesting—and in some cases, hatchling releases—throughout the summer, ensuring that the eco–curious can experience this primordial natural phenomena without disturbing the turtles when they are at their most vulnerable.
Below we take a look at where to signup for sea turtle walks, as well as some advice on how to protect these magnificent maritime reptiles.
Gumbo Limbo | Boca Raton
Getting a jump on nesting seasons, Boca Raton’s Gumbo Limbo Nature Center begins its annual turtle walk program on May 19, 26, and 31, followed by weekly walks every Tuesday-Thursday from June1 to July 14. The program starts at 8:30 p.m. at the nature center, with walks hitting the beach at 8:45 p.m. and will continue on until midnight, unless a nesting turtle is spotted first—the tour will come to a close once a nesting turtle is spotted and observed. Before the walk begins, guests will take a crash course on sea turtles, and the amazing natural phenomena that is sea turtle nesting.
After the nesting turtles have left and the incubation period has elapsed, Gumbo Limbo will turn its attention to the hatchlings with its Hatchling Release program. On Mondays-Thursdays, July 20 to August 13, 8-9:30 p.m., and August 17 to September 8, 7:30-9 p.m., Gumbo Limbo naturalists will bring hatchling loggerhead turtles to the water’s edge, releasing the wee turtles into the blue. Open to all ages, the program begins with a short lecture in the classroom, designed to inform guests about baby sea turtles, the arduous journey the hatchlings are about to take, and why they are an important part of the marine ecosystem.
Gumbo Limbo’s Nature Center offers exhibits designed to educate locals and visitors about Florida’s ecosystems, the flora and fauna inhabitants, and conservation and preservation efforts people can do at home.
Before you head out to the beach, be sure to explore campus nature center. Equipped with interactive and educational displays, guests can learn a little about the sea turtles before seeing them in the wild. And as a sea turtle rehabilitation center, guests can view sea turtles as they recover from injury and/or illness in specialized tanks outside of the nature center, giving guests a chance to see these animals in person while being reminded that human not only care but are more often the cause of the ailments too.
- Admission costs $17. Space is limited, and advanced registration is required—to book your spot for Gumbo Limbo Turtle Walks, click here; for the Hatchling Release program, click here.
Tips for Turtle Walks
Turtle nesting, in essence, is a form of childbirth. These tours are witness to that, so be courteous—keep your distance, keep noises to a minimum, and try to be of little a distraction as possible—we don’t want an audience in our birthing suites, sea turtles are the same. Here are few tips to make your turtle walk a safe excursion for you and the turtles.
- Always go on a guide-led tour. The guides are trained to not just look for clues and cues of nesting, but also how to keep from disturbing the turtles as they deposit their eggs. Nesting puts the sea turtle in a vulnerable position, and if she sense danger—or company—she will return to the sea without laying her eggs. Trained guides know when a turtle can be approached, how to approach them, as well as how to keep the crowds at bay.
- Leave the flashlights, phones, and cameras with flashes at home. Bright lights will deter sea turtles from nesting. That means the only light to guide your tour should be that of the moon. This goes double for flash photography; sea turtle eyes are not calibrated to handle the strobe of a camera’s flash. Do the turtles and favor and leave the bright lights at home.
- Wear comfortable clothing and proper footwear. Turtle walks tend to cover a lot of ground, and that ground is beach sand—if you have trouble walking for two miles or more on beach sand, it is best to skip this particular excursion.
- Bug spray can be helpful—especially at MacArthur Beach State Park. If the wind is howling, you’ll probably be fine, but if it’s not, horse flies are plentiful along the dunes.
- Be courteous. Adult sea turtles only come to land for one reason—to nest (in fact, once male sea turtles make it to the water as a hatchling, they will never lay a flipper on dry land again). And while nesting, they are in a state of vulnerability—they’re flippers and lumbering, heavy bodies are more adept for the seas. If they see someone lurking around the beach when emerging from the surf, they will turn tail and swim, perhaps missing and opportunity to nest. This results in fewer hatchlings making it to sea, leading to a smaller mating pool, exponentially affecting future populations.
Loggerhead Marinelife Center | Juno Beach
Throughout June and July, Loggerhead Marinelife Center hosts walking tours to observe sea turtle nesting and the egg-laying process of loggerhead, green, and the occasional leatherback sea turtles along the beaches of Juno Beach. The walks, roughly a half-mile long, begin at 9 p.m. and typically end at midnight every Wednesday through Saturday evening. Groups meet at LMC’s headquarters at Loggerhead Beach where a staff naturalist leads a presentation on the plight of sea turtles and the degradation of their natural habitat, as well as observe some of the turtle patients rehabilitating in the turtle yard. Simultaneously, LMC scouts scour the beach in search of turtles; bringing guests out onto the beach only once the turtle has began the nesting process. By sending scouts, this helps eliminate human interference with turtles as they emerges from the water in search of a suitable nesting site, as well as helps ensure groups get to witness the egg-laying process versus false crawls. These walks, which are led by members of LMC’s research and education departments, are not just educational but also have the ability to leave lasting impressions on hikers of all ages and help relay the mission LMC hopes to impart: “To promote conservation of Florida’s coastal ecosystem with a special focus on threatened and endangered sea turtles.”
- Turtle Walks are open to hikers ages eight and up. Admission costs $17 ($12 for members); registration begins on May 2 at 12 p.m. For more information, visit marinelife.org.
For the Beach Goer
- For anyone that’s visited the beach during nesting season, you’re aware of the sea turtle nest signs staked along the beach. These indicate nests—as well as false nests (raccoons and foxes have learned that stakes equate to eggs)—meaning steer clear. If you’re setting up shop on the beach, keep your distance from these markers—any disturbance the nest can mean death the incubating eggs (reptile eggs need a precise temperature range to ensure proper incubation).
- Keep your kids and dogs away from the nests. Small children don’t know any better—but you do. Be a good parent and ensure that these turtles will be returning to that very beach 25 years down the line so your kids’ kids can witness the nesting as well. As for dogs, they can smell those eggs underground, and they want them. Keep those hounds on a leash—after all, there are all kinds of stuff that can injure, maim, or even kill your pet that washes ashore in seaweed, so its best to keep Fido close at hand throughout their beach visit.
- If you see detritus, pick it up. Trash and litter, especially single use plastics like bags and bottles, are deadly to turtles, which mistake the trash for jellyfish—mainstays of some species’ diet. And larger trash like broken umbrellas or beach chairs look predatory to a sea turtle making its way up the beach at night, resulting in a false crawls. Be a good sea turtle steward and clean the beach, even if it’s not your trash.
- If you dig a hole, fill it in before leaving (same for your dog). Though it may seem benign to bipeds, a large hole can be deadly to a sea turtle. Already operating at a high stress level, nesting sea turtles can get stuck in these holes, or, depending on its depth, fall in and break its neck. While rare, it happens. So if you dig it, fill it.
MacArthur Beach State Park | North Palm Beach
Beginning in June, MacArthur Beach State Park will once again lead nighttime turtle walks along nearly two miles of beach. Walks take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays through June and July from 8-11:30 p.m. (longer depending on turtles), and are led by park rangers ensuring that guests do not disturb the turtles on the beach. Limited to
Before you head out on the tour, visit the park’s Visitor Center for an interactive look at the state park’s maritime ecosystem, and its inhabitants, including an adolescent loggerhead sea turtle on the nature center’s porch.
- Registration for MacArthur Beach State Park’s Turtle Walks begins on May 31. Tours fill up quickly, and advance registration is required. To book your spot, visit macarthurbeach.org/turtle-walk/.