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Sea turtle hatchlings were disoriented by artificial light during nesting season on Florida's Gulf coast

Veterinarians with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium treated 487 sea turtle hatchlings - 79 of those successfully rescued and rehabilitated were released offshore while 324 were released onto the beach.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Veterinarians with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium treated 487 sea turtle hatchlings - 79 of those successfully rescued and rehabilitated were released offshore while 324 were released onto the beach.

As sea turtle nesting season came to a close last month, it was apparent that the biggest challenge in one part of the Tampa Bay region involved the turtles getting disorientated this year.

It's mostly loggerheads nesting in Pinellas County, with the occasional green sea turtle, or a very rare Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

Biologists observed 313 sea turtle nests this past nesting season - that number is up from 281 in 2021, and 222 in 2020.

The season ran from May through October, along 21 miles of beach in Northern and mid-Pinellas.

Each nest, or “clutch,” can contain 80 to 120 eggs, but how many actually hatch depends on the incubation conditions.

If it remains in a moist environment, but not too wet, there can be up to a 96% hatchling success. If severe weather chronically inundates the nest with water, there’s a significant reduction.

“Our sea turtle nests weathered just fine because we didn't have any significant storms, which was not the case last year,” said Lindsey Flynn, sea turtle conservation program manager at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “We had Elsa come through and damaged quite a few of our nests.”

Land predators, like coyotes and raccoons, can also affect hatch out success.

But as one of Florida's most densely populated counties, human use of artificial light created a constant challenge for the reptiles.

Instead of following the moon and starlight bouncing off the water at night, there were 173 reported instances this past season, where the young reptiles, and some adults, wandered into developed areas.

One hatchling was rescued from a parking lot after crawling across Gulf Boulevard, a major roadway along the barrier islands.

"While we take a significant amount of time to find our disoriented hatchlings, unfortunately, we don't always find them all. So, there's no way to know whether those hatchlings made it to the water or not,” said Flynn.

Even using cell phone lights during nighttime strolls along the beach can misdirect the turtles. Flynn suggested people use lights with red bulbs to minimize harm.

Other human threats to sea turtle hatchlings include sand castles, beach chairs, trash, dug-out holes, and nest vandalism.

Flynn said it's difficult to keep everyone informed when the beaches are a popular vacation spot for out-of-town visitors.

"Our tourists are here for a few days to maybe a week at a time, and so it becomes extremely challenging educating those folks for the little time that they are here," she said.

It’s also estimated that Florida gains 900 new residents daily, according to numbers released by the state’s chief financial officer last year.

Although most coastal municipalities in Pinellas have rules around lighting, Flynn said they vary.

So, the aquarium is promoting what’s called The State of Florida Model Sea Turtle Lighting Ordinance, created by state and federal agencies in 2020, which outlines how beach communities can be most effective.

Click here to view an interactive map displaying the Florida counties and municipalities with lighting ordinances for the protection of sea turtles.

The CMA said in an email that “simple acts like knocking down sand castles, filing in holes, switching to wildlife friendly light bulbs and fixtures, and disposing of trash properly, can all help save sea turtles and make a positive impact on the loggerhead sea turtle population.”

If you find sea turtle in distress, you can contact the CMA's 24-hr Rescue Hotline at 727-441-1790, and then press 1.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has a 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922).

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.