There’s little doubt Flagler County residents love their indigenous turtles: With painted sculptures of them throughout Palm Coast and Flagler Beach that growing trail devoted to them by the Palm Coast Arts Foundation, the turtle may soon rival the potato as Flagler County’s most emblematic symbol.
But the lives behind the symbol are not entirely safe. Seeing a turtle crossing the road, or one already squished, is not uncommon. It seems as if “turtle crossing” signs aren’t enough to help protect these docile creatures. In the midst of turtle nesting season and in honor of World Sea Turtle Day on Wednesday, a little consideration may be in order.
Patrolling 25 miles of beach in Volusia County, 18 miles in Flagler County, and 2.5 miles in St. Johns County, the Turtle Patrol, a non-profit organization, is a major resource dedicated to the protection of sea turtles. Its work in Flagler is well known and frequently recognized at local government boards, in Flagler Beach especially.
Turtle Patrol is best known for closely monitoring local beaches, marking and protecting new turtle nests. Once the turtles hatch, anywhere from 45-70 days from when the mother turtles laid her eggs, Turtle Patrol volunteers evaluate the nest and helps any stragglers that haven’t made it to the water yet. Two months into this year’s nesting season, 51 nests have been counted in Flagler, 18 in Beverly beach, and about 90 between Beverly Beach and Washington Oaks Garden.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reports that the four turtle species that nest on Flagler beaches are Loggerheads, Green sea turtles, Leatherbacks and the rare Kemp’s Ridleys, one of which was recently seen nesting on May 29. A female sea turtle will typically lay three to five nests with about 100 eggs every season. The eggshells left behind can provide nutrients that help sustain surrounding dune vegetation. The Gopher tortoise is another familiar reptile, often seen struggling to cross A1A and typically inhabiting coastal dunes. Learning which animal belongs where and how to handle them could save their lives.
Lori Ottlein, who runs the Flagler Turtle Patrol, has been helping native turtles and their hatchlings for 23 years. Ottlein, with a passion, explains how to prevent turtles from being harmed. “Even though we say we shouldn’t we actually say you should, you should pick it up and bring it to the pier, because otherwise, it’s gonna die,” says Ottlein, when asked if picking up turtles to move them is advised.
If you come across a sea turtle, identifiable by its flipper limbs, and it’s nowhere near the water, Flagler Turtle Patrol encourages using one of the resources they’ve implemented. “If anybody sees one, we have a bucket at the bait shop at the pier,” Ottlein says, referring to sea turtles. “So anyone can bring a turtle right there to the pier where they have their bucket ready, and then they call us and we go and get it. Then when we get it, we determine whether it’s okay to go or if it has to go down to the Turtle Hospital. Some of them have to go down the Turtle Hospital because they’re so tired that they just can’t make it anymore.”
Gopher tortoises are a different story. If you see one of the tortoises trying to cross a street and decided to assist it, “help the tortoise cross in the direction it is going,” says Ottlein. “It’s going to either feed or lay eggs or whatever it’s going to do, it’s going across A1A. Whatever way it’s headed, you just pick it up off the road and let it go on the side of the road, whichever way it’s going. Because if you take it and put it back on the other side of the road where you think you will be safe, it’s just going to try and cross the road again.”
One major way to help turtle hatchlings survive is to keep bright lights to a minimum. “We beg everyone to not have fires or flashlights on the beach because little baby hatchlings are going to come out of that nest in the middle of the night and look for the glow of the moon.” Flagler Beach allows bonfires on the beach, but not during turtle-nesting season from May 1 to Oct. 31.
When a turtle sees the glow of the moon, over the ocean, that’s what it heads for. But if young turtles come out of that nest and the street light is lit brightly, or there’s no moon and people are wielding flashlights–or fueling a bonfire–, then the hatchlings will head straight to that. These forms of light not only cause the hatchlings to be disoriented but lead them away from the water, where they’re intended to go, possibly to their perdition.
Beachgoers’ equipment left overnight can prevent female turtles from nesting and even harm them. Ottlein uses beach chairs as an example: “They will get wrapped up in the chair, they can drag it back down to the ocean and just try and swim with this chair wrapped around it and could get stuck in a chair and they can’t get out,” she says. “We have signs that we put on people’s beach chairs and stuff when they leave it all out there. I understand that they’re going to come back tomorrow. But what about tonight? Tonight could be a dead turtle.”
While digging holes and building sandcastles seems like harmless fun, the holes left unfilled after a day’s play can be dangerous obstacles for the turtles. “The moms coming in can fall into the hole and won’t be able to climb out,” Ottlein says of animals that can weigh up to 300 pounds. “Then when the hatchlings come down from the hatching patch they can get stuck in the hole.” Filling up holes and taking down sandcastles is a surefire way to help protect them.
Then there’s the pervasive pollution, and the state’s imperious refusal to allow local governments from regulating it through such things as bans on plastic bags.
Based on Turtle Patrols stranding reports, Ottlein says, “what we normally get are turtles that have ingested bags and plastic and just can’t eat anymore because their stomachs are full of things that they shouldn’t have. And then they die.” Something as simple as picking up after yourselves and picking up trash can save turtles’ lives. “I see it so much, we’ll go down to patrol, and we’ll come across an area and walk over and there will be like twelve cans of, like, white claws and little toys, stuff and clothes. And they just leave it there.” After ingesting or getting tangled in the waste, “they just float up on the beach dead,” says Ottlein. “I mean we’ve had baby hatchlings that we’ve had that have died. When they wash back up, they’re filled with bits of plastic, teeny weeny bits of plastic.”
No one wants to see dead turtles on the side of the road, but being more aware of habits that can harm them may help prevent that. If you feel the need to take a step further than cleaning up after yourself or helping a turtle cross the road, Flagler Turtle Patrol created “Adopt a Nest.” Adopting a sea turtle nest for $50 helps fund the continued protection of the species. Adopters receive turtle merchandise like t-shirts and the opportunity to participate in “babysitting” their sea turtle nest by checking on it in the evening and reporting any changes to the Turtle Patrol.
“Most of the people that are returned adopters, they want people to come and see because it just increases awareness. And once you see a baby sea turtle, you’re sold,” says Ottlein.
There's your sign says
I went to help a gopher tortoise cross a road, he was about where a car tire would go with no chance of making it (I had to move into the empty oncoming traffic lane, then slowed to pull over and move it). A driver coming from my same direction, whom could see me and the turtle sped up, you hear his engine RPM accelerate.. he steered to aim right for the slowly crawling guy.. hit the turtle about 30 feet up the road from me, and just sped off. Not making this stuff up. I could not grab a plate number, I had a turtle potentially flying at me, so I had no choice but to take cover and it was a good thing I did. No sign you can make will stop indifference and ignorance towards life.