NAVARRE BEACH — Cathy Holmes began patrolling Navarre Beach for sea turtle nests in 2008 and this is the first time she has witnessed so many turtles decide against laying their eggs on the beach.
While nine threatened and endangered sea turtles made nests on the Santa Rosa County stretch of barrier island this year, Holmes counted a record nine false crawls. That’s when sea turtles pick a beach but then decide to go somewhere else.
Holmes speculated that record tourism at the beach played a part in keeping away the turtles that usually visit beaches in this region. She said both residents and visitors should only shine flashlights with red lights at the turtles or the nests.
“It was a very high year for visitation of people,” Holmes said. “There were always lots of people out early in the morning and late at night. They need to respect the turtles.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission since 1989 has watched the trends of sea turtle nesting on 27 beaches covering 205 miles of Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
In 2019, the number of nests between May 15 through Aug. 31 for loggerheads hit 241 along Panhandle beaches and more than 53,000 in Florida at the beaches it monitors. Greens reached a record high in Florida in 2019 totaling almost 41,000, while reaching 43 in the Panhandle. Meanwhile, leatherbacks numbered 336 in Florida at its 27 beaches and six in the Panhandle beaches that FWC tracks.
Kathy Gault, an endangered species biologist at Eglin Air Force Base, said sea turtle nests numbers have climbed from nine in 2010 to nearly 70 this year.
Only one out of 1,000 sea turtles makes it to maturity. Human impacts threaten them with extinction such as fisheries by catch, coastal development, plastic and fishing line pollution, and the consumption of sea turtles and their eggs.
Sharon Maxwell, who founded the sea turtle patrol program in Walton County in 1995, said the season started slow this year and went later than usual. The nesting season typically runs from March 1 to Oct. 31. The last of the 55 nests, down from 66 last year, was created by a green sea turtle Oct. 1.
“Usually, it’s not hot enough to incubate eggs,” said Maxwell, who noted two leatherbacks also laid their eggs along Walton’s coastline. “They do nest here but very seldom hatch.”
George Gray said sea turtles created 15 nests on Okaloosa Island, which is about the annual average. Three nests got washed away when Hurricane Barry headed in July for landfall in Louisiana. The last of the sea turtle hatchlings raced to the Gulf of Mexico waters Oct. 28, said Gray, who has patrolled the island for 25 years.
“We’re going to do an evaluation and see just how many did hatch,” Gray said. “That was late. I thought we were through.”