Few creatures are as synonymous with Florida as sea turtles. Between March and October, more than 100,000 threatened and endangered turtles (primarily loggerheads, greens, and leatherbacks) nest on Floridian beaches, with the majority of that activity occurring in June and July. Locals and visitors alike can witness this amazing process by taking part in a licensed, expert-led turtle walk through organizations such as Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
“The main purpose of the turtle walk is to educate guests on sea turtle nesting [and] how to properly observe sea turtle nesting,” says Caroline Tapley, a science educator at Loggerhead Marinelife Center. “I’ve seen people who come back every year and do the program over and over again because it just doesn’t get old.”
Turtle nesting season is a huge tourism draw for Palm Beach County. In 2017, the county saw the greatest number of nests, 26,245, out of a statewide total of 96,886. Many factors could account for why so many female turtles choose this area, but Kirt Rusenko, a marine conservationist at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, believes lighting—or a lack of it—is part of the appeal. “Palm Beach County started controlling lighting and encouraging lighting ordinances way back in the mid-1980s,” Rusenko explains. “The darker it is, the more it attracts turtles, and I think that’s exactly why we have more.”
Both LMC and Gumbo Limbo host a variety of turtle-nesting programs during the summer. Turtle walks take place at LMC every Wednesday through Saturday evening in June and July, and advanced registration is required. While participants take part in an educational presentation and after-hours tour, LMC guides scour a 9.5-mile stretch of Juno Beach for nesting loggerheads (the only type both LMC and Gumbo Limbo are permitted to observe). If they find one, then the group relocates to the beach to watch the mama loggerhead drop her eggs into the chamber. “We can’t call up the girls and tell them to come out, but the odds are definitely in our favor for seeing a sea turtle,” notes Tapley.
Rusenko and the Gumbo Limbo team in Boca follow a similar game plan, with turtle walks scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings from June 5 to July 12. In addition to the moonlight, both organizations use red flashlights to illuminate the nesting process, as turtles cannot see that wavelength. “The way it is now with sky glow, sometimes you can see pretty well even without light,” Rusenko says. “Sometimes it’s fun to just turn off all the lights and imagine you’re there alone and have it nice and quiet.”
Like humans, female turtles are at their most fertile during their 20s and 30s. Their average gestation period is between 47 and 55 days, with each able to lay between four to seven nests per season. Furthermore, every nest contains about 100 eggs.
Once this nesting season peak starts to slow down, both LMC and Gumbo Limbo begin their hatchling release events. LMC presents its program every night in August. These special happenings involve researchers excavating nests and bringing any hatchlings back to the lab before they then release them alongside guests during the evenings. LMC rounds out its summer beach offerings with its Biologist Beach Walks. Unlike its turtle nesting walks and hatchling releases that are held at night, Biologist Beach Walks take place in the early morning, during which time visitors accompany staff members on live nest excavations.
Gumbo Limbo begins its hatchling release program on July 16, hosting gatherings every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening through September 6. In addition, beachgoers who spot loose hatchlings wandering the beach during the daytime are encouraged to gently scoop them up and bring them to Gumbo Limbo’s drop-off box. The center’s experts will then care for the young turtles before returning them to the sea at night.