It's sea turtle nesting time along the Emerald Coast! Watch for the signs

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Tourists are not the only ones making their way to the Sunshine State: Make room for the turtles. 

Sea turtles head to the beaches to lay their eggs from March to October each year. 

“The earliest I have had a nest is May 13 … that was exciting,” said George Gray of the Emerald Coast Turtle Watch. 

A juvenile Green Sea Turtle called “Asparagus” swims in a tank at the University of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hospital at the Whitney Laboratory in Marineland in Flagler County on Thursday, April 29, 2021. The turtle was found ill on Flagler Beach in March.

This past weekend, Gray hit the beach in his ATV to scout out the area for possible turtle nests. He traveled from the east jetty in Destin to the Walton County line. 

“The good thing about it is there is more beach there right now than there was when I finished up last year,” Gray said, noting Hurricane Sally did a number on the beaches when it hit in September of last year. 

He was pleased with what he saw last weekend. The beach was 60 feet in some areas and even more in others. 

But even with the beaches in good shape, he saw no signs of turtles yet. 

“For me, yes … it’s a little early,” he said. 

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Gray said that along the east coast of Florida and central and south Florida, turtles are already showing up to nest. 

The turtles that show up to nest along the Emerald Coast are usually the loggerhead, leatherback, green or an occasional Kemp’s Ridley. 

"The leatherback start showing up first … those are the biggest ones,” Gray said. 

The leatherback can be anywhere from 500 to 1,500 pounds. 

Right now, Gray tries to make it out on patrol four or five times a week looking for nests. He hits the beach about 5:15 a.m. 

A sea turtle nest was seen on a South Walton beach in 2020.

“I’ve got a 30-minute window to hit the beach before the sun comes up,” he said. 

What’s he looking for? 

“I’m looking for tracks. Each track is going to be pretty much different. Loggerheads are the most prevalent in this area,” Gray said. 

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He explained that the turtle tracks look as if “little tractors” have run across the sand. 

The track of a loggerhead is about 3-feet wide, he said. However, tracks from a leatherback are about 8-feet wide.

“Looks like a bulldozer has come through,” he said. 

This is a photo of tracks left by a sea turtle on Destin's beaches in years past.

The green turtle will leave a track about 4-feet wide and the Kemp’s Ridley even smaller. 

Gray said two years ago he had two green turtle nests on the beach, and three years ago he had two Kemp’s. 

“The Kemp's is probably one of the smallest turtles I’m going to see,” he said, noting they still get well over a hundred pounds. 

While most sea turtles come up on the beach to nest at night, Gray said the Kemp’s Ridley is a day nester. 

Gray tells of getting a call at 9 a.m. of a turtle nesting on the beach behind Sand Piper Cove on Holiday Isle a few years ago. 

Turtle hatchlings head back to the Gulf.

“I went down and I was able to see the animal going back to the water, and I saw the nesting area" in order to identify the turtle, he said. 

“Fortunately, there was somebody keeping people away from it,” he said. 

And “staying away” is key, Gray said. 

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Gray wants those lucky visitors who are staying in a condo on the beach who see a turtle come up on the beach, to “walk away.” 

“Let the animal start nesting, then they can go up and watch. But no photography. No bright lights, it will run her off,” he said. 

This is a grouping of loggerhead sea turtles that hatched on Pensacola Beach.

When Gray finds a nest, he marks it off with four stakes and orange flags, then he puts signage out identifying what it is and what the penalties are for messing with it. 

“The penalties in Florida can be $100 an egg,” he said. 

And sea turtles lay anywhere from 80 to 150 eggs. 

There are also state and federal laws against harassment of the turtles. Gray said some folks have put their kids on the back of turtles and posted pictures.  

“They are federally and state protected. You could go to jail,” he said. 

Although Gray hasn’t seen any turtle tracks this season, he’s hopeful. Last year he spotted his first one in June. 

“My average is about 16 to 18 a year,” he said.