Footprints in the Sand - Eco Trail
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Baby sea turtles on Pensacola Beach get help to boost chances of survival
by Mark O'Brien

I've seen full-grown sea turtles in the open water. They're massive,
200–300 pounds. Their heads are man-sized, making you think from
a distance that a person is swimming far from shore. Sea turtles have
been around for thousands of years, but I had no idea how badly the
odds are stacked against them. Until I met Limarie Rodriguez-
Stevenson, who has been volunteering for 12 years to guard turtle nests
on Pensacola Beach and to make sure the hatchlings get into the Gulf of
Mexico. Even then, a baby turtle faces odds of up to 1,000–1 against
reaching adulthood.

By day, Rodriguez-Stevenson is a veterinarian, caring for dogs, cats
and other domestic creatures. She began turtle-tending because she
wanted to be involved with a more exotic species as well. Her fervor
is contagious; when she got married four years ago, her husband
became a volunteer, too.

Nest Sitters

On Pensacola Beach, the nesting season runs from May to October. Florida has five species of sea turtle, and three come here: The loggerhead—the most common sea turtle on Santa Rosa Island—got its name for its large head and is occasionally joined by the green turtle and the Kemp's ridley—the smallest and rarest of sea turtles. During nesting season, the female turtle digs a hole maybe two feet deep, where she deposits dozens of eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls. Then she departs.

Volunteers cruise the beach at sunrise to find new nests. Then they "nest sit" to make sure the eggs aren't disturbed. “They hide where they put the eggs," says Rodriguez-Stevenson. "But they tend to nest a little too close to the water," she says. "We have to move a lot of nests." After 60 days the eggs hatch, usually at night. As the 60th day approaches, volunteers literally put an ear to the ground to detect sounds from the nest. "I cheat," Rodriguez-Stevenson says, smiling. "I use my stethoscope. You can hear sand falling in the nest as the hatchlings scramble to the surface.”

The tumult of dozens of eggs hatching almost simultaneously causes the nest to collapse, sending the newborns scattering to the surface. Then their next test takes place. On a good night, they will head for the gulf. On shore, they're vulnerable to predators. "Ghost crabs are the worst. They'll literally grab the hatchlings and drag them into a crab hole," she says.

Light Pollution

Baby turtles face a life-or-death decision as soon as they bustle out of the nest. They must get into the gulf to survive. But while they have great eyesight underwater, turtles have poor vision on land.They're drawn to the light. Ideally this means the moon over the gulf, but other times the turtles head for lights from homes, businesses and roads around Pensacola Beach, which dramatically increases their chances of dying.

The volunteers and bio-technicians often put the babies into coolers and move them to the gulf. The hatchlings are lumpy and squirmy and about as warm as the sand where they were born. "They usually swim out until they find a patch of seaweed," Rodriguez-Stevenson says.

Life at sea is perilous—predators, fishermen and storms. Males don't return, but after decades at sea females somehow find their way back to their land of birth to hatch a new generation. "They're very interesting animals,” says Rodriguez-Stevenson. Interesting enough for her to get up before sunrise twice a week to patrol beaches and to spend nights caring for tiny creatures with little chance of survival? "We have to be good stewards," she says. "We're taking over their beaches." Next time I spot an adult sea turtle, I'll appreciate it a lot more. And I'll also appreciate the role of scientists, volunteers and luck in helping that turtle survive.

Visit the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail to learn more about the efforts to protect sea turtles on Pensacola Beach. You’ll also find year-round conservation efforts to protect this amazing ecosystem.