Sea turtles, a marine reptile and one of the planet's most ancient creatures, having been around since the time of dinosaurs. Males will spend their entire lives in the ocean, and females only leave to nest. They are long-lived and take almost 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Once a female is ready to lay her eggs, she will return to the beach of her birth. Most species wait until nightfall to crawl onto the beach. Kemp's Ridley turtles are the only daytime nesters found in Escambia County. Regardless of the time of day, females will crawl above the high tide line before using their hind flippers to dig a nest in the sand.
Each species leaves a unique set of tracks, making it possible to identify what species laid the nest long after the turtle has returned to the ocean. Approximately half of all nesting attempts result in a "false crawls," where the female was disturbed before she could begin digging or could not find a suitable nest site. A female may nest several times during a season and then not again for one or two years.
The eggs are small, about the size of a ping ping ball and leathery in texture. They will incubate for up to 2 months, before the hatchlings emerge all at once and migrate to the water's edge, using environmental and instinctual guides.
Sea turtles are highly migratory, travelling thousands of miles a year. Hatchlings begin their journey by migrating to open ocean, where they will feed and hide in floating sargassum patches until they are big enough to avoid all but the biggest predators. They return to coastal areas as juveniles, roughly the size of dinner plates, and can cover huge distances while looking for food. Upon reaching sexual maturity at about 20 years old, they will migrate thousands of miles to breeding grounds. Males will move between foraging and breeding ground their entire lives, never once leaving the water, while females will return to their birth beaches to start the cycle all over again.
Sea turtles are important members of the ocean food web. After a nest hatches, eggshells and unhatched eggs are an important nutrient source for dune and coastal ecosystems. Hatchlings and juveniles are a source of prey for birds, racoons, coyotes, crabs and fish. While adult turtles have few natural predators, they are important consumers of algae, jellyfish, sponges and shellfish, keeping populations under control and helping to cycle nutrients.
To learn more about the five species that call Florida waters home, click here.
Did You Know?
The turtles that nest on Escambia County’s beaches will actually spend the majority of their life in the Atlantic Ocean. The turtles we see here in the Gulf of Mexico most likely hatched from beaches on Florida’s eastern coast.