Sea Turtle FAQs
Sea Turtle Trackers (STT) Founder/President/Principle Permit holder Bruno Falkenstein has been monitoring and helping sea turtles for over 35 years as a labor of love and a way to give back. He receives no money for doing this. For many years, he did it all on his own. In the past few years, he's been working with some other volunteers. In 2013 we incorporated as a non-profit. Note only those who are sea turtle marine permit holders – issued by the Florida Wildlife Commission – are allowed to work with the turtles. The FWC has strict guidelines, procedures and reporting requirements. Everyone in our organization is a volunteer, even Bruno and our "staff" (those named on the permit). Our goal is to mitigate the negative impacts of intensive human use of sea turtle habitat with as little intervention as possible, providing a natural experience for the reproduction of turtles on our beaches. Turtle Joe Widlansky works closely with Bruno and is on St Pete beach every morning during turtle season. Stop by and say hello!
1. When is sea turtle season? What does STT do in the ‘off-season?’
For our beaches, April through end of October each year with the preponderance of nests laid in May – July. Hatchlings emerge 50-60 days later. There is always plenty to do! STT runs educational events and beach clean-ups year-round. During the winter months, we also fundraise, prepare equipment, and run training sessions for the next season.
2. What species of turtles nest on the Gulf Beaches of Western Florida?
98% of our nesting turtles are loggerheads with an occasional green turtle and the rare Kemp’s Ridley. Loggerheads, greens as well as leatherbacks are more common on the East Coast of Florida. Florida is a key nesting environment for loggerheads within the United States. 90 percent of all USA loggerhead nesting occurs in Florida. Florida is one of the 3 largest nesting areas in the world for loggerhead turtles.
3. Is it usual (or how rare is it) to see turtles or hatchlings on the beach?
Both are usually active at night and some of our volunteers have yet to see a turtle lay a nest or a nest to boil (hatch). So consider yourself very lucky if you encounter sea turtles. Remember they are threatened and protected; it is illegal to touch, feed, or interfere with them.
4. How old are the loggerheads? How big are they? What do they eat?
Sea turtles have a lifespan similar to humans and are known to have lived to over 80 years. An adult female loggerhead weighs on average 260 pounds (120 kg) and can be up to 3 feet (1 metre) in length. Hatchlings and juveniles eat dead insects, shrimp, Portuguese man-o-war and the like. As they grow, larger adult loggerheads eat jellies, sponges and hard-shelled invertebrates (such as lobsters, conchs and crabs) using their extremely strong jaws to crack the shells of their prey.
5. What do turtles do in the water? Where do they go in winter? How far does a turtle travel?
Marine turtles live in the water and only come ashore to lay their eggs. They eat, sleep and mate in our oceans – their home. They have daily commuting patterns, tend to sleep anchored to a spot/rock and seasonally migrate long distances from Florida up the Eastern seaboard to Massachusetts and out into the Atlantic Ocean following prey in the Gulf Stream.
6. Why is it important to help sea turtles? Are turtle numbers on the increase or decline? Why? Are they endangered? How significant is Florida to worldwide turtle populations?
Sea turtles have been around for millions of years (outliving the dinosaurs) but human intervention in the form of overfishing and more recently recreational boating, beach development and climate change have resulted in large declines in their population. Loggerheads are classified as threatened with the real possibility of becoming endangered in the near future. Sea turtles are a critical part of the circle of life and play an important role in our ocean and beach ecosystems. For example, sea turtles eat hard-shelled prey, breaking down the shells releasing nutriments into the sea for use by other sea creatures. They forage on the sandy bottom helping to aerate (loosen) the sea bottom. Empty turtle egg shells on beaches release nutriments into the sand supporting the animals that live in our dunes. For detailed information visit: oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Why_Healthy_Oceans_Need_Sea_Turtles.pdf
7. I would like to adopt a nest / a hatchling / sponsor a week of beach patrol. How can I do that?
During egg laying season (late April through early August) you can adopt a nest by visiting our website at: www.seaturtletrackers.org. Adoption entitles you to a plaque with your name on the nest and pictures of the nest site as well as a certificate of adoption. Note that nest adoptions are limited to the number of nests laid in any given year, so visit our website early in the season.
8. I/My family would like a turtle experience. Can I sign arrange a tour/trip out with Sea Turtle Trackers?
You are welcome to observe our activities on the beach during turtle season (April – October). Please always keep your distance (15 feet) and remain quiet in the presence of turtles or hatchlings. Never shine a light at a turtle or turtle nest. All our volunteers and staff are trained. The morning turtle patrols (jeep and boat) and evening nest sitters all have specific duties which require advance training. These are work positions with specific time commitments, not tourist adventures. You can learn about turtles by attending a Turtle Talk, adopting a nest, making a donation, observing our work on the beach or becoming a trained volunteer. Volunteers must be 18 years of age (or 16 with parental permission). Anyone of any age can volunteer for a beach cleanup. Please note sea turtles, like other wildlife, do not perform to a time schedule and you may or may not see them on the beach or swimming in the local waters. It is against the law to touch, feed, harass or capture marine sea turtles. Turtle Talks are given by Turtle Joe at 4 pm on Tuesdays just beyond the pool at Guy Harvey Outpost on the beach and are free, just show up. Nesting & Morning Patrols
9. How do you know there is a nest? How does the mamma turtle find the nest again?
Each morning during turtle season, before the beach rakers and visitors arrive, we patrol the beach looking for the tracks of any momma turtles who laid their nests during the night. With our trained eyes we follow the distinctive tracks to find the tell-tale signs of the nest. Approximately 50% of the time a female turtle emerges from the sea, she is spooked [often by humans and light] and returns to the Gulf without laying a nest; these are called ‘false crawls’ and uses up valuable energy she needs for nesting. Male turtles do not leave the sea. Just like snowflakes, no two nests look exactly the same, which makes the data gathering all that much more fun! Once she has laid the nest, the momma turtle’s job is done and the eggs incubate in the sand. You can see a picture of turtle tracks on the home page of our website
10. How many eggs does the turtle lay? When do they hatch? What does a turtle egg look and feel like?
Loggerhead nests average 115 eggs (± 20%) with one female laying 3-6 nests in a season. An adult female (beginning at age 25-30 years) will only nest every 2-3 years. Once she lays the eggs, the momma re-enters the sea and does not return to the nest. Unlike birds, turtle eggs are incubated by the sand and the sun, not by the turtle sitting on the nest. The eggs incubate under the sand and hatch in 50-60 days. Warm sands (> 86⁰ F or 30⁰ C) produce mostly female turtles and cooler sands result in mainly males; here in Florida we produce lots of females! The weather plays a large role in determining when the next hatches with cooler weather lengthening the incubation period. The eggs look like and are about the size of a ping pong ball. The eggs are soft and pliable, similar to what a plastic liquid coffee creamer container (in a hotel/restaurant) feels like.
11. What determines where the turtles lay their eggs? Do they return to the beach where they were born?
When the Gulf waters reach 80⁰ F (27⁰ C), this is the signal to start the nesting season. Most loggerheads nest on open beaches between the recent high tide line and the foot of the dunes. Highest densities of nests are away from lights and human development – in our area on Pass-A-Grille Beach and the uninhabited island and nature preserve of Shell Key. It is believed hatchlings imprint on the beach of their birth, known as the ‘nesting beach,’ possibly guided by the magnetic fields of the earth. This is why biologists believe it is crucial that hatchlings crawl across the beach to enter the sea and ‘imprint’ on their home beach to return 25-30 years later and nest.
12. I understand you patrol the beach each morning at dawn. What exactly do you do?
Yes, Sea Turtle Trackers, under FWC permit, patrol each and every day of turtle season (April – October) beginning one-half hour before sunrise. Usually in a team of two, we walk or drive the 5.8 kilometres of St Pete beach searching for turtle tracks that will lead us to a nest made during the previous night. We also patrol the shoreline of Shell Key nature preserve which is only accessible by boat. When we spot a nest, we mark it with stakes and tape, and measure its location; see question 13 for more information. This information we are required to report to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). In addition to looking for new nests, we check the marked nests every day.
13. Why do you mark the nests on the beach? Why do some have black wire cages?
When we spot a nest, we mark it with stakes and tape to protect it from the beach traffic like the police, beach raker, garbage trucks, and visitors who might inadvertently damage a nest. This also helps us to find it easily and keep an eye on it to ensure it is left undisturbed by humans. Some nests require more protection for the hatchlings and these have black wire ‘restraining’ cages. A restraining cage is used in areas with lots of artificial (that is, man-made) lighting shinning onto/near the beach. This lighting can ‘disorient’ or distract the turtles and they may crawl towards the human light source instead of the Gulf of Mexico. Hatchlings that ‘disorient’ usually die. Just before a nest is ready to hatch, 45 days after being laid, if needed, we will place a black wire cage over it to prevent hatchling from going in the wrong direction. A volunteer must ‘close the cage’ each evening at sunset and we open the cages each morning on beach patrol.
14. If I see a nesting sea turtle, what do I do?
If you encounter a nesting female, immediately call us or the police who will contact us. You should stay a good distance (20 feet) behind her and outside of her sight line. Never use flash photography or attempt to touch her. Nest Sitters, Hatching & Hatchlings
15. I want to see hatchlings, can you arrange that? How many hatch at one time?
A nest of circa 115 eggs (see question 10) will typically hatch anytime between 50 and 60 days after the nest is laid, but it could be five days on either side (rarely more). Hatching typically occurs between 9 pm and 5 am. Nature does not perform to a human timetable. We have a rough idea of when the nests will hatch but we don't know which day within that window or what time of night the nest will hatch. When we sit out at the nest, we're there to protect the nest. We sit about 20 feet away and only check it briefly every half hour for any movement. Most nights, we don't witness a hatch. If you see an unattended nest hatch, call Sea Turtle Trackers immediately, leave the hatchlings undisturbed (never touch them or shine lights/use flash photography) and if possible stay at the nest until a staff member arrives. Respectfully advise others to stay back from the turtles.
16. Can I touch the turtles / hatchlings? When they hatch can I help them get to the water? What do I do if I find disoriented hatchlings making for Gulf Blvd?
Sea turtles and their hatchlings are protected by Federal law and it is a violation of the law to touch, feed or interfere in any way with these creatures. It is our objective for the nesting and hatching process to be as natural as possible and we only intervene if the hatchlings disorient or are caged (see question 13 above). Only those operating under a State FWC permit are allowed to interact with the turtles and their hatchlings. Disoriented hatchlings are those moving away from the Gulf towards artificial light/Gulf Blvd into the dunes, condos, parking lots or streets. If you are unsure a hatchling is disoriented or in trouble, call the phone number below and continue observe the hatchling from a distance until assistance arrives. If you see any disoriented hatchlings on the beach please call us immediately at 727-744-6524 or 727-501-5581 for instructions. Do not put hatchlings in any water, feed them or return them to the ocean. You may be instructed to place them in a bucket with some sand and cover the bucket with a towel; we'll have one of our volunteers come get them from you. Thank you for keeping an eye out for these turtle babies. Note: it is illegal for individuals to keep sea turtle or hatchlings, so call us right away. Or call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Division of Law Enforcement at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC from your cell phone
17. Where do hatchlings go once they are in the water? What do they eat?
Hatchlings swim out to sea, into the sargassum grasses approximately 50 miles offshore. There they find camouflage from predators and eat tasty shrimp, crabs, and other seafood (see question 4 above). A hatchling is about the size of a poker chip and s/he grows to the size of a dinner plate in about a year’s time. Once ‘dinner plate’ size or a juvenile, they live off-shore near the surface of deep ocean waters and migrate using the ocean currents to look for food. When the females near maturity (25-30 years), they move into warmer subtropical waters.
18. What is a hatchling's chance of survival?
Only about one in 1,000 turtles survive to adulthood. It is estimated about half of turtle eggs hatch. Here on the Gulf Beaches in recent years we have been fortunate that our average egg hatching rate is higher than 50%. Hatchlings first challenge once outside of the nest is to make it to the sea; they die of dehydration if they don't make it to the ocean fast enough. Birds, crabs, and other animals also prey on the young turtles. Once in the ocean, they are predated upon by fish, and sharks as they grow older. Fishing, crab traps and boat strikes are other dangers. As they grow larger and mature into adults their chances of survival increase.
19. I see nest sitters on the beach. When do they do that and what are they doing?
When we sit out at the nest, we're there to protect the nest and if necessary guide the hatchlings towards the sea. We have a rough idea of when the nests will hatch (usually 50 - 60 days after being laid) but we don't know which day within that window or what time of night the nest will hatch. We sit about 20 feet away and only check it briefly every half hour for any movement. Most nights, we don't witness a hatch. Our goal is to make sure the hatchlings make it to the sea, mitigating the impacts of human development and interference. Increased high intensity human activity on the beaches (beach development and lighting) along with turtle soup – have severely impacted turtle numbers over the past 100 years; loggerheads are now a ‘threatened’ species with the real danger of extinction if not protected.
20. When there are heavy rains / high tides washing over the turtle nests will they still hatch?
Maybe, but not always. Spring tides and/or tropical rains can result in nests being ‘washed over’ or ‘washed out’ meaning either the tide briefly sweeps over the nest for a few hours, or that the nest sits with water on top of it for days. A turtle nest has a pocket of air at the top of the egg clutch and the eggs are porous. The nest ‘breathes’ and a wash over can interfere with the air circulation drowning the nest. Protection & Sea Turtle Trackers: How to help, learn & volunteer
21. What can we do to protect and encourage turtles to lay eggs on our beach? Why do lights on the beach matter? What about trash and holes in the beach sand?
The biggest thing beachgoers can do to help sea turtles is to leave the beach CLEAN, DARK, and FLAT. Follow the ‘Leave No Trace Principle: Anything you brought to the beach with you should also leave the beach with you. Leave the beach as you found it (or better!).
People should leave nothing but footprints, and if everyone could help leave the beach a little cleaner than they found it, it would help. Better yet, don't even bring plastics to the beach. Almost all sea turtles of adult age have ingested plastic, often with disastrous results. Use a canvas tote instead of a plastic sack, bring a reusable container for your water rather than a plastic bottle.
It's important to minimize beach lighting during nesting season. Mother turtles prefer to nest on dark beaches. This is why we have many more nests on the southern end of Pass-A-Grille than up on the north end of the island in St. Pete Beach. The reason they prefer dark beaches is because this gives the greatest chance of survival to the hatchlings. They head toward the water, looking for reflections on the water of stars and the moon. If there is artificial lighting visible to the hatchlings, they will follow it and become disoriented. We work with the local community to educate them on the importance of turtle-safe lighting. Turtles don’t see the same wavelengths of light as we can, so amber and red lights are less distracting for them. We have helped businesses get grants to offset some of the costs of retrofitting their lighting.
Kids should be encouraged to fill in their holes and knock down their castles when they are done for the day and ready to go home. Those holes and mounds can cause nesting mothers or hatchlings to get stuck. If they are stuck after the sun comes up, they are likely to die. Beach chairs and other furniture left out overnight means death to several turtles in Florida every year. Turtles do not have the ability to "back up", so if they encounter an obstruction they may not be able to get back to the sea. At the very least, even if the turtle makes it back safely to the water, it will interrupt normal nesting behavior.
The mother turtles can become exhausted if they make several attempts to nest in a night, and subsequently not come up the beach very far on their final attempt. This may result in a nest that is laid very close to the water and may wash out. If people take a few minutes to clean up and clear out, it makes for a much safer environment for the turtles. Many counties and municipalities have ordinances and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the beaches are cleared of furniture and debris each night.
22. How does the weather, the tides / [blue] moon impact turtle nesting and hatching? Do you relocate nests or turtles?
This is a myth. Contrary to popular belief the moon and tides do not impact loggerhead turtle nesting and hatching. Hatchlings emerge from their nests at all phases of the moon, in all weathers and find the ocean.
Under FWC guidelines, turtle nests are only rarely relocated in extreme circumstances to avoid total destruction of the eggs.
23. What should I do if I encounter a mamma turtle making a nest or find hatchlings on the beach? Are they easy to see?
It is very special to see turtles on the beach. They are mainly seen at night and many locals have not seen them, so it is a special treat to see a nesting turtle or hatchlings. If you see turtles on the beach: Keep a distance, remain quiet. For an adult stay behind her (out of her line of sight) at 20 feet.
Never shine any lights on a turtle or hatchling or hatching nest; this includes flashlights, cell phones, flash photography, and video equipment. Do not touch or put your hands near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten and disorient her, causing her to return to the ocean before completely covering and camouflaging her nest.
24. What should I do if I see a dead or injured turtle on the beach or someone messing with a nest or nest stakes disturbed?
For dead, injured/stranded turtles or if anyone sees tampering with a nest, they should immediately call the FWC 24 hour hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com. Cell phone users can reach us at *FWC or #FWC, depending on your service provider.
25. What area(s) does Sea Turtle Trackers cover? What if I find turtles on beach areas outside Sea Turtle Trackers area of responsibility?
Sea Turtle Trackers holds the permit for St Pete Beach and the nature preserve of Shell Key Island. For any turtle issues outside our area call the FWC 24 hour hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
26. What does the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) do to protect and monitor sea turtles?
All five Florida species are listed as either endangered or threatened. The federal Endangered Species Act lists the green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp's Ridley turtle as endangered. The loggerhead is listed as threatened. This makes it illegal to harm, harass, or kill any sea turtles, their eggs, or hatchlings. It is also illegal to import, sell, own/hold or transport turtles or their products.
Sea turtles are also protected under Florida statutes. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC,) in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), issues permits for activities involving marine turtles in Florida. All activities relating to marine turtles must be authorized under subsection 379.2431 (1), Florida Statutes.
To qualify for a marine turtle permit, the applicant must have the appropriate knowledge and experience, and demonstrate that the proposed activity adds to the conservation of marine turtles. Permit Holders must adhere to the Florida Marine Turtle Conservation Guidelines. See FWC’s website page on sea turtles: http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/.
27. I would like someone to speak to my organization about turtles. Can you help?
Yes, education is a core part of our work. Contact us via our website www.seaturtletrackers.org or email us at email@example.com. When contacting us please let us know the name & nature of your organization, when and where you would like us to speak, the approximate number of attendees and if they are adults or children (with age range). Be sure to include a contact name and phone number.
28. I think I might like to volunteer; what do volunteers do?
Volunteers get involved in all aspects of STT work, morning jeep and boat patrols, nest sitting, educational events, beach clean-ups, publicity, cage building and even administrative work. You may be walking in the beach in the sun, riding in a bumpy jeep/boat, night sitting at a nest quietly (with no lights and not using your smart phone), speaking to groups, or doing paperwork. Not to put you off as turtle work is rewarding, but it does requires patience and certainly isn’t glamorous.
We try to match volunteer skill and interests to the work needed to be done. We provide training and in return ask our volunteers to regularly work with us as we must meet State requirements for daily monitoring; STT is not a one-off or occasional tourist adventure.
We are an all volunteer organization; those with prior professional nesting experience may earn the designation of staff and supervisors. All other volunteers work under the direction of a staff member/supervisor.
We ask all volunteers to sign a volunteer contract and liability release as we rely upon them to do important marine conservation work in accordance with Federal and State laws and protocols. Please note this important, sometimes dirty, work rarely involves actual sight of turtles and volunteers will not be in direct contact with (no touching, feeding, moving) turtles or hatchlings.
29. I would like to support the turtles / volunteer. How do I get involved and help? We are an all volunteer organization and rely on donations to help the turtles. We gladly welcome financial support and new volunteers. To learn more about Sea Turtle Trackers visit our website www.seaturtletrackers.org/leadership-team.html and/or the volunteer page at: www.seaturtletrackers.org/how-to-help.html.
30. I would like to use your photos/am writing an article about turtles? How do I get permission and more information?
Contact us via our website www.seaturtletrackers.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
31. How can I see STT's financial information?
The Consumer Services Division of FDACS (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) has a "Gift Givers Guide", which features an online search that allows consumers to access information on charities registered in the State of Florida.
You can search using our name Sea Turtle Trackers or our "license number" which is CH40237. You'll be able to see our registration information which includes our total revenue, total expenses, surplus/deficit, and the percentages of expenses in each of three categories (Program Services, Administrative, and Fundraising). Here is a link: Gift Givers Guide
Please note: 2014 was our first full year of operation. We had non-recurring start-up costs like the cost of registering with the IRS as a charitable organization and some initial one-off fundraising expenses (e.g. coin donation boxes to deploy at local hotels). Additionally, there are no staff costs which, if incurred, would be part of program service expenses, as we are a totally volunteer organization.