Gulf sands are sea turtles' maternity ward
A mother sea turtle wades onto shore and across the sugar white sand until she finds the right spot to begin digging the hole that will be the incubator for her eggs for the next 60-70 days. Then, she deposits about 100 eggs, covers the nest and then crawls back to her home in the Gulf of Mexico.
The sands of Pensacola Beach is where many baby sea turtles get their start, fighting their way to the surface amid eggs and siblings to reach the air, the moonlight and the warm Gulf waters.
Beginning May 1 of each nesting season, Gulf Islands National Seashore employees and volunteers begin patrolling Northwest Florida beaches between 5:30 and 8 a.m. daily.
When a nest is discovered, the turtle protectors determine if the nest is in an area prone to flooding, high tides or heavy traffic and relocates the nest if necessary. The nests are then marked with a sign and four corner posts until hatching is complete.
Although turtle nesting declined steadily from 2000 to 2007, this season proved the exception with 32 loggerhead nests and Kemp's- Ridley nests discovered on local beaches.
Nests are continually monitored throughout the season, and disorientation screens are posted around the nest beginning at incubation day 55 to prevent the turtles from seeing light other than that coming from the moon.
"Light pollution causes a lot of problems and the hatchlings can go the wrong way," said Mark Nicholas, biologist with the National Park Service. "Getting them in the water and keeping them in the
water is a critical problem."
When hatching begins, turtle patrols spend the nights watching the nests until the nest begins to bubble up with sand, and eventually turtles, but occasionally a nest will hatch in daylight hours, further confusing the newborns.
Still, the odds are against the little creatures.
"The turtle strategy is to produce a lot of eggs in the hopes that one will survive," Nicholas said. Once adults, the risk remains from shrimp nets, fishing hooks and boat propellers.