Long before humans invented the beach blanket, massive umbrellas and sunglasses, Florida's beaches were the domain of wildlife. Today, the beaches do double duty, serving vacationing sun-worshippers while remaining the habitat and nesting grounds for aquatic creatures—with none more adorable to spot than baby sea turtles.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), May is when sea turtle nesting season begins across Florida. Until the end of October, beaches will see female loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles come in to dig a sand nest—typically long after the sun sets—lay their eggs then retreat back to the ocean. Weeks later, the eggs will hatch and tiny turtles will dig themselves out and make a run for the water.
Though direct interaction can be dangerous for the turtles, not to mention legally punishable, it doesn’t hurt to respectfully watch these amazing events from a safe distance.
To help create awareness of the sea turtles, many public sea turtle walks are held across the state, and these popular nighttime watches are scheduled during the nesting and hatching season from May to October. Expect the tours to last two to three hours and require walks of up to a mile to see the turtles. Tours are offered across the state but are typically full by mid-summer and require children to be old enough to walk by themselves. The FWC provides an online map and listings of recommended sea turtles watches and walks in Florida.
"These watches occur primarily on the central east coast of the Panhandle, as those beaches have the highest density nesting by three species of sea turtles in the state," said Dr. Robbin Trindell, a biological administrator at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Female loggerheads return to nest on the beach where they hatched, resulting in a unique group of loggerheads that nest only on northwest Florida beaches."
On the panhandle side of the state, rangers at Sebastian Inlet State Park offer guided walks beginning in June, but even if you're on the Atlantic, there are great walks to be found. The Sea Turtle Preservation Society holds walks in June and July at locations in southern Brevard County near Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Guests at Disney Beach Resort at Vero Beach can also join in the fun with planned outings; there are "turtle troops" designed just for kids age 7-15.
According to Trindell, most of the walks involve the behind-the-scenes efforts from hundreds of Marine Turtle Permit Holders, or "citizen scientists," who comb beaches to catalog and protect new sea turtles through the summer months. The work these volunteers do marking protected areas also helps travelers get in on this unique travel experience.
"The best way to see nests is in the morning, after the FWC-authorized Marine Turtle Permit Holder has marked them with protective tape and a sign," said Trindell. "While the FWC encourages people to allow nesting and hatchings to occur on the dark, quiet beach without disturbance, if folks are lucky enough to be on the beach when a nesting turtle or hatchlings, we recommend they remain at a distance, no flashlights, cell phone or camera lights."
If you don't catch sight of sea turtles on a walk, but feel like you can't leave until you do, the FWC provides a list of captive sea turtle facilities where you can see these magnificent creatures on your own schedule.