Five species of sea turtles rely on Florida's coastal and nearshore habitats for nesting during the summer months and foraging throughout the year (Figure 1).
Loggerhead turtles, named for their large, block-shaped heads with strong jaw muscles for crushing benthic invertebrates, are the most common sea turtle species on Florida's nesting beaches. They nest on beaches throughout much of the state.
Green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are largely vegetarian and can be spotted foraging in seagrass meadows.
Leatherbacks, the largest species of sea turtle, are different from other turtles in that they are covered with a somewhat flexible "leathery" shell, rather than a hard shell. Leatherbacks can be seen in Florida's coastal waters but nest much less frequently in the state than loggerheads and green turtles.
Kemp's ridley turtles are the smallest and most endangered marine turtle. They can be seen foraging in nearshore areas but rarely nest on Florida's beaches.
Lastly, hawksbill turtles are named for their pointed beaks. They are mostly tropical but occasionally appear in the southernmost waters of Florida and very rarely nest in the state.
All of Florida's sea turtles are in danger of extinction, largely as a result of people's actions. However, there are simple steps Florida's residents and visitors can take to help these remarkable animals. Below are 10 suggestions for limiting further harm to sea turtles.
Turn off lights, use wildlife-safe lighting, and avoid bonfires near beaches. Sea turtles can become disoriented by artificial lighting. To reduce harm to turtles, refrain from using outdoor lights when turtles are nesting and hatching, from May–October. If you must have outdoor lighting, use fixtures that shield bulbs on the top and sides so light is directed downward and is not visible from the beach; use fixtures that are mounted low to the ground; or use bulbs that are less visible to sea turtles (Figure 2). Turtle-friendly bulbs use long-wavelength light (greater than 560 nm), producing orange, amber, or red light. Also, be sure to prevent indoor light from escaping onto the beach by shielding windows with blinds, curtains, shades, or window tinting. Lastly, avoid lighting bonfires on or near beaches.
2. Keep garbage off the beach and out of the water. Sea turtles can become entangled in fishing line, ropes, and monofilament. They can also ingest plastic garbage that they mistake for food. Always properly stow trash when boating or jet-skiing to prevent it from ending up in the water, and throw away trash in garbage cans when on land (Figure 3).
3. Do not disturb nesting or hatching sea turtles or sea turtle nests. During the months of May through October, sea turtles emerge from the ocean to nest on Florida's beaches. Although it is interesting to watch nesting sea turtles and hatchlings emerging from the nest, be aware that turtles are easily disturbed by human presence. Stay at least 50 yards from any turtles on the beach, and turn off all flashlights, lanterns, cellphone screens, or other light sources if it is after sunset. Also, do not disturb marked nests (Figure 4).
4. Protect seagrass beds. Seagrass beds are important nursery grounds for juvenile sea turtles because these areas provide shelter and necessary food sources (Figure 5). Gouging seagrass beds and creating trenches with boat propellers destroys this essential habitat. Always be aware of water depth and tide movement when boating in areas with seagrass to prevent damage to the beds from your boat propellers.
5. Remove recreational equipment and furniture from the beach at night. Adult female sea turtles crawl onto beaches to lay their eggs at night and can become entangled in recreational equipment and furniture left on the beach overnight (Figure 6). Newly hatched sea turtles emerging from their nests can also become entangled in items people leave on the beach as they crawl to the water. Be sure to remove all toys and furniture from the beach each evening to provide a clear path for nesting and hatching sea turtles.
6. Always use designated beach walkovers or access points. Sea turtles use dunes to guide themselves back into the water when they are on land. Dunes block out onshore lights, helping turtles to recognize which direction leads to the ocean. Dunes also help stabilize the beach habitat that sea turtles use for nesting. If you walk over the dunes, you destroy the plants that hold the dunes in place. Without this vegetation, dunes are quickly eroded by wind, which ultimately leads to problems for turtles that become disoriented by lights. Refrain from walking through the dunes when entering and exiting the beach, and never walk above the vegetation line on the beach (Figure 7).
7. Follow best fishing practices for sea turtles. Sea turtles are harmed when they ingest fishing hooks and plastic lures and when they become entangled in fishing lines (Figure 8). Never leave a fishing line unattended, and always properly dispose of fishing lines and old hooks and lures in trash receptacles or recycling containers. If you hook a sea turtle or find one caught on fishing gear, immediately notify the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) by calling 1-888-404-FWCC.
8. Reduce polluted water run-off. Polluted water run-off can be harmful to sea turtles and their habitats. To minimize the effects of water pollution, never fertilize or irrigate your lawn if rain is forecast within a few hours (Figure 9). Also, consider landscaping with native plants that are adapted to the local growing conditions. These plants are less likely than non-native ornamentals to require extensive fertilization and irrigation.
9. Do not drive on the beach during nesting or hatching season. The ruts left in the sand after driving vehicles on the beach can entrap hatchlings emerging from their nests (Figure 10). As they crawl to the water, hatchlings can get stuck in vehicle ruts, and then crawl in them for long distances along the beach rather than moving directly to the ocean. This wastes valuable energy that they should spend in the water, swimming to food and safety. Also, driving can destroy vegetation and dunes in the landward part of the beach and disturb shorebirds and their chicks foraging in the wrack line near the water. There is no safe place for people to drive on the beach during turtle nesting season. You can minimize all these dangers to coastal wildlife in north Florida by avoiding beach driving during the months of May through October.
10. Observe sea turtles from a safe distance when boating or jet-skiing. When sea turtles are hit by boats or jet skis, they can sustain serious injury or death. When driving a motorized vehicle in the water, drive slowly in areas where sea turtles might be foraging (Figure 11), including shallow waters, reefs, and seagrass beds. Also, never approach a sea turtle with a boat or jet-ski: keep a minimum distance of 50 yards from sea turtles in the water.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2019a. Species of Sea Turtles Found in Florida. https://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/florida/
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2019b. Threats to Sea Turtles. https://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/threats/
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2019. Sea Turtles. https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/marine-life-education-resources/sea-turtles
Swindall, J. E., H. K. Ober, M. M. Lamont, and R. R. Carthy. 2019a. "Informing Sea Turtle Outreach Efforts to Maximize Effectiveness." Wildlife Society Bulletin 43: 436–446
Swindall, J. E., H. K. Ober, M. M. Lamont, and R. R. Carthy. 2019b. Sea Turtle Conservation: Priorities for Environmental Education Efforts. WEC420. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw464
US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2019. General Sea Turtle Information. https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/SeaTurtles/seaturtle-info.htm