Every year from May to November, a very special group of visitors diligently return to visit Scenic Highway 30A’s sugar sand shores. They’re drawn to the clear warm water, the long clean beaches, and the relative peace and quiet.
Of the seven types of sea turtles found in the world’s oceans and seas, five varieties make their way to northwest Florida shores each summer to lay their precious cargo. 30A beaches are one of the only places in the world where all of these species nest and coexist.
Sadly, the four main species of sea turtles that frequent these beaches, the Kemps Ridley, the Green, the Leatherback, and the Loggerhead turtle are all either on the endangered or threatened species list. Their extraordinary way of life faces many growing challenges, both natural and manmade. Paige Douglas works for the South Walton Turtle Watch. She started as a volunteer patrolling miles of beaches before sunrise in the hopes of identifying and protecting any new nests that turtles might make overnight.
“Next season will be my 10th year for nesting surveys. So while that’s crazy to think that I’ve had so many amazing memories during those 10 years, it’s some of the most unforgettable experiences that I’ve had since I’ve lived here,” Page told me.
According to Page, there is no typical morning, and that’s one of her favorite parts of the job is that you never know what you’re going to wake up for. They either walk or drive the entirety of Walton County Beaches every morning May through October, and survey those beaches around 30 minutes before sunrise. They’re out there checking for new nesting activity to see if they find any new nest or false crawls. They also check on existing nests to see if there is any activity, any hatchlings may have emerged, any predation that they might need to note. And while they’re out there, they also educate the public. They pick up trash, fill in holes and anything else that tey can do to help conserve sea turtles.
“The lifespan of a sea turtle varies based on species, and there’s still a lot that we don’t know about, specifically, how long each species might live,” said Paige. “But during that time, they go through a cycle of hatching from our beaches, and then they make their way out to the nearest sargassum bed where they spend several years of their life. And then as they grow and mature into an adult, they will eventually find their way back to the same region to lay their eggs, and then the cycle will continue with the next hatchlings.”
Leatherback sea turtles are among the most highly migratory creatures on earth, traveling as many as 10,000 miles or more each year in search of their favorite meal, jellyfish. They crisscross the Atlantic and go from the Gulf and Caribbean beaches up the US East Coast as far as Canada, before returning to these natal beaches, their original place of birth.
“Whenever they emerge from their nest, they will imprint on the beaches and then as they go off and develop into sub-adults and then adults, they can make their way back to the same region that they nested, and so they can come back to the same area to lay their eggs,” Page said.
Once they return here to their beach of birth, the female will wait for the cover of darkness before leaving the water to crawl up on the beach to build her nest. She will very carefully use her rear flippers to shovel sand away before laying as many as 100 eggs, roughly the shape and size of pinging pong balls. Disguising her nest as best she can. She returns to the water and will feed and forage for at least two or three years before starting the breeding and reproduction cycle again.
But the path for her young ones is not so easy. After about 50 to 60 days of incubation, the tiny turtles break out of their eggs. The hatchlings lie low in their nest, buried under the sand while they replenish their energy and wait for the cover of night. Darkness is the only hope these little guys have of making it across the beach and into the surf. They disappear into the deep and their exact whereabouts can be unknown for as long as a decade in a period that Turtle watchers call The Lost Years.
Marine biologists believe young turtles from the 30A area may get caught up in the Gulf Stream and float on this current out into the Atlantic, where they encounter the Sargasso Sea, that floating wedge of seaweed caused by swirling currents, which provide them with both food and shelter.
It is estimated that only one in 1,000 sea turtles ever make it to adulthood. If they do miraculously survive against all odds, these magnificent creatures can easily outlive humans with some documented as over 100 years old.
Want to give these little guys a helping hand? You don’t necessarily have to become a Turtle Watch Volunteer. You can follow three simple rules, clean, dark, and flat. Clean, pretty obvious guys. Just take everything off the beach with you, including your trash, your beach chairs, and your beach toys. Dark, just turn off all the lights. It’s better for stargazing anyway. Finally, flat, let the kids have fun knocking over those sandcastles. Fill in all the holes they dug. The kids will have fun doing it. And who knows, you might just be giving this little guy a chance at a long, happy life.