Sea turtles are everyone’s dream encounter. But even if you don’t like putting your head underwater, there are great ways to observe them when they nest or hatch on land.
Unfortunately all seven species of sea turtles are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Therefore, it gets harder and harder to witness their nesting and hatching. But twice, just by accident, I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to see the magic happen. And with some patience, you could too.
The magic of sea turtle nesting
Some sea turtle populations nest and feed in the same area, while others migrate great distances to lay their eggs.
Female sea turtles use their excellent sense of smell to return to their beach of birth (whether far away or nearby). They lay their eggs mostly during the night in order to avoid the heat of the day and the resulting dehydration.
A good indication that a turtle is preparing to lay its eggs is telltale tracks in the sand leading up from the water’s edge. The first time I stumbled upon these distinctive tracks during day time I thought it was the marks of somebody pulling his dinghy into the water with very tiny evenly-spaced steps.
If you see these kinds of tracks, come back at night. Your chances are good that the turtle will return, as they lay between 3 and 8 times per season, plus some “dry-runs” to confuse the predators.
Just be sure to be very quiet, and don’t use a white or yellow light, as turtles are highly sensitive to light. If the moon’s out, that should provide you with plenty of light. Or, you can use a red light or a flashlight with a piece of clear red film over it. This won’t disturb the turtle and scare it back into the water, which may result in them releasing the eggs at sea, and therefore a lost generation of baby turtles.
The most impressive nesting I’ve witnessed was in Exmouth, Australia and Rosalie Bay, Dominica. Both times, big loggerheads and leatherbacks, respectively, appeared out of nowhere in the ocean, surfing the waves, and dragging their huge, heavy bodies with gasping sounds onto and across the beach.
We stayed far enough away to give the turtle enough space until she had found her favorite spot and started digging with her back flippers. Once turtles stops digging the hole for their eggs, they fall into a deep trance. At this time it is safe to came closer and watch her lay her eggs. These are golf ball shaped, with bigger ones (fertilized) and smaller ones (non-fertilized).
The trance is also the only time we were allowed to use white light, and our camera flash. Although some super-sensitive species, like green turtles, would even be disturbed by this, so find out as soon as possible which turtle you’re watching nest.
When the trance ends the turtle starts shifting sand onto the eggs to cover them up. This is when you must turn off any white lights and stop using your flash.
Sea turtles eyesight is good underwater, where they can even distinguish colors, but they are shortsighted on land. So be careful not stand between a turtle and its escape way to the ocean, as it might run into you (remember that there might be some other turtles on the beach that you haven’t seen yet).
A turtle running into you probably won’t harm you if it’s a small one, but when Eric wasn’t paying attention in Dominica, he almost got run over by a huge 2 m/6 ft leatherback. He noticed it at the last minute and managed to get away before he might have been knocked off his feet (like I said, these are big turtles).
Seeing these creatures lumber out of the ocean, lay their eggs and then disappear back into the sea, as quietly as they appeared, is an amazing experience. And though the adrenaline rush will vanish, the memories stay with you.
The magic of sea turtle hatching
Sea turtle hatching takes place a few months after the nesting. Sadly, not all of the eggs get a chance to hatch, as they are highly sought-after by land animals as food. To combat this, turtles will often dig a number of fake nests just to confuse animal searching for eggs.
Interestingly enough, the temperature during incubation determines the sex of the hatchlings. Cool temperatures (under 29°C/84°F) will produce males, warmer temperatures will create females. So global warming likely has a direct effect on the future of sea turtles.
Turtles mostly hatch at night. This is to avoid the heat of the day, but also they face fewer predators in the dark, as most birds (a significant land predator) are asleep during that time of the day. That leaves only crabs and fish to contend with.
As soon as the baby turtles have dug their way out of the sand, light draws them back to the sea, which is usually the moon or stars reflected off the water. Though unfortunately it’s sometimes the lights of houses on the beach or the white light of some ignorant turtle watcher, which can confuse them.
Once they’re in the water, they’ll fight the waves and try to get out into the deep blue ocean and far away from the shore as soon as possible, as fewer predators await them there.
I once held a baby sea turtle in my hand in a research station, and it’s amazing what strength these little guys have in their flippers.
Baby turtles that make it out into the deep blue ocean, spend a couple of years cruising the open ocean, drifting with the currents in the search of food. Nobody knows exactly why and what they do there, but as they age, they return to coastal areas and become attached to a specific feeding ground.
It’s almost like with humans: travel while you’re still young and have no obligations, and then settle down (though I’m not sure this will ever work for me).
The reason why you’ll see hundreds of hatchlings, but only a few adults, is that only 1 egg out of 1,000 becomes a mature adult turtle. You got to be tough to make it in the turtle world, and these guys are: Loggerhead turtles can stay underwater without breathing for more than 10 hours, and Leatherbacks can dive down 1,300 m/4,200 ft.
Where to go to see the magic of sea turtle nesting and hatching
A sea turtle’s body temperature depends on the outside temperature. This is why they prefer to be in warm waters.
Though there is always an exception to the rule. Leatherbacks, whose diet consists of mostly jellyfish, have been seen as far north as the North Atlantic. In fact, they have the longest migration of all sea turtles and they have been found up to 5,000 km/3,000 mi from their nesting beaches. They are the largest of all sea turtles and can reach up to 3 m/10 ft in length and weigh over 900 kg/2,000 pounds.
As most sea turtles (even most leatherbacks) like warm water, most of the nesting and hatching grounds are in the tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, 23,5° north and south of the Equator, respectively). As the eggs have to be buried, sandy beaches are preferred.
So if you are in an area that matches these criteria, find out if it’s the right season, and if so, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to witness the magic of sea turtle nesting and hatching — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
If you want to find out more or get actively involved in their protection, you can visit the website of the Sea Turtle Conservation Society.