Sea Turtles in St. Augustine, Florida
By Trish Elliott
Zach McKenna and his naturalist guides at Ecotours of St. Augustine Florida offer many fascinating adventures, among them the opportunity to see a sea turtle “up close and personal”.
While visiting the ancient city of St. Augustine Florida, if you are coming from the beginning of May until early October, you may witness the nesting of female sea turtles. Over 50,000 sea turtles are in Florida, making it the most important nesting area in the United States. The Leatherback sea turtle is highly endangered, and the Loggerhead is the most common of Florida sea turtles.
A female sea turtle can lay several nests during a season, but nests only every two or three years. The difficult process of nesting takes many hours, as the female drags herself from the sea onto the sand dunes, employs her back flippers to dig a hole and deposits her eggs, usually about 100, each the size of a ping pong ball. She then covers the nest with sand, and abandons it, never to return.
After incubating about two months, the hatchlings break out of their shells and begin moving, eventually causing the walls of the nest to collapse and the bottom of the hole to rise to the surface. Once near the surface, however, the babies wait until the surface of the sand cools to emerge, and most come out after dark. Once out of their nest, they make their way to the water and swim offshore, where they live for several years in seaweed beds, drifting in the Gulf Shore. As they grow older they venture out into coastal waters.
Hundreds of years ago there were sea turtles in the millions in the ocean. But threats to their habitat, commercial fishing, and the demand for both their hide and pollution have contributed to their decline in numbers. Another important factor is artificial lighting. When hatchlings emerge from their nests they instinctively move towards the light, which historically has been the light of the ocean. The commercial development along most of the Florida coastline, however, has strong lighting and the hatchlings go the wrong way, thousands of them perishing in their endeavor to move towards the light.
The Leatherback Turtle is the largest and most active of the sea turtles. Up to eight feet in length, these huge turtles have a rubbery dark shell marked by seven narrow ridges that run the length of their back. Many travel thousands of miles and dive thousands of feet deep. They also venture into much colder water than any other sea turtle. These turtles feed on jellyfish and soft-bodied animals that would appear to provide very little nutrition for such huge animals. About 200 leatherback nests are recorded in Florida each year.
The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle in Florida. It is classified as a threatened but not an endangered species. Named because of its large head, which can be ten inches wide, it has powerful jaws used to crush the clams, crabs and encrusting animals on which it feeds. As many as 68,000 Loggerhead nests are found in Florida each year.
Below are some fun facts about sea turtles:
(1) Sea Turtles have existed for over a hundred million years.
(2) They live their entire life in the ocean, except when they lay eggs.
(3) It can take 15-50 years before a sea turtle can reproduce.
(4) They can travel thousands of miles, but usually return to the beach upon which they hatched to lay their eggs.
(5) The nest temperature determines the sex—males like it cooler and females hotter.
(6) They have great vision underwater, but can barely see out of water.
(7) They are reptiles and can hold their breaths for a long time.
(8) It is estimated that only one in 1,000-10,000 babies live into adulthood.
(9) They use their jaws to crush and eat a diet of crabs, shrimp, mussels and jelly fish.
Take a tour with Ecotours of St. Augustine and you may see some of these fascinating reptiles!