A total of 158 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings emerged from two nests on Okaloosa Island this past Saturday night, and made their way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Okaloosa County Coastal Resource Team, with oversight from the permit holder, Emerald Coast Turtle Watch, inspected the nests on Wednesday, August 30th, to evaluate the number of eggs and hatchlings from each location.
- The nest evaluations are a normal part of the sea turtle monitoring process, according to Okaloosa Coastal Resource Coordinator Jessica Valek. The team locates and monitors sea turtle nests, but does not intervene or assist with the actual hatching process.
“We are hands-off during the entire incubation process,” Valek explained. “The time that the eggs are spent in the ground, those turtles are developing and growing within the egg. We do not ever go into the nest until after the turtles have already hatched from their eggs and come up out of the ground.”
Once a nest shows signs of hatching activity, the team continues to monitor it for 72 hours. This allows time for any straggler hatchlings that take longer to fully emerge.
- “Female sea turtles’ eggs can get fertilized by more than one male on different days but she lays all of her eggs on the same day,” Valek said. “Because there’s that day difference in fertilization, some might hatch a little bit earlier than the rest of the nest.”
After the 72 hour period ends, the team performs an evaluation by carefully digging up the nest contents, by hand. This allows them to count the total number of eggs, hatched eggs, unhatched eggs, and any hatchlings that are still in the nest.
“We’re looking at how many eggs there were total, how many of those eggs hatched and then determine how many hatchlings were produced from the nest,” Valek explained. “That is what we were doing on Wednesday with those nests.”
The first nest, located near Beach Access #1, contained 138 total eggs. Of those, 123 hatched successfully.
“That is above average for a loggerhead nest,” Valek noted.
The second nest, near Beach Access #3, was unusually small with just 54 total eggs. Only 35 of those hatched.
- “That nest did not experience any sort of disturbance or significant temperature swings,” Valek said. “It didn’t experience any washover during the incubation period either. That one was unusual.”
Despite the lower hatch rate at the second nest, the overall outcome was positive with 158 hatchlings making it safely to the water between the two locations. This is in addition to the other 90 and 67 hatchlings from Destin, earlier this month.
During the evaluation, the team catalogs details like the number of whole unhatched eggs remaining, any partial eggs, and evidence of predation from ghost crabs or other predators that will eat the eggs.
“We also look for hatchlings that don’t make it fully out of the egg,” Valek explained. “They’ll still be in the egg. So that is called a pipped egg and we’re looking for that kind of stuff too. If the hatchling is alive, we will assess that hatchling and hopefully let it go.”
- For certain endangered species of sea turtles, a sample of unhatched eggs may be collected and sent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for testing. Otherwise, the contents are returned to the nest cavity before filling it in, according to Valek.
“We don’t need the eggs for any reason, and they act as a good fertilizer for the beach,” Valek said.
While the recent Okaloosa Island nest evaluations showed promising hatch rates, some other nests this season have seen lower success.
“We did have a nest that did not hatch,” Valek noted. “There were 107 whole eggs and one hatched egg that we evaluated this past Sunday. Some of these percentages are lower than we would like to see. But we’re also having some high percentage hatchings. That’s Mother Nature.”
To compensate, sea turtles lay multiple nests per season, increasing their overall reproductive success. The team also dealt with a case of hatchling disorientation from one nest on Okaloosa Island.
- “Almost all of the hatchlings went toward the land instead of the water,” Valek said. “Something as small as a light inside of a condo with open windows could cause them to become disoriented. That’s why we stress so much to shut your lights off and close your curtains.”
Thankfully, the team’s daily monitoring allowed them to find and recover the affected hatchlings.
“We were able to follow their tracks and actually recover a handful of the disoriented hatchlings and they were brought to the Gulfarium CARE Center and they were safely released,” Valek added.
For beachgoers fortunate enough to spot hatchlings emerging from a nest, it is crucial not to interfere or disrupt their journey. The Okaloosa County Coastal Resource team offered these tips:
- Watch from a distance
- Allow hatchlings to crawl to the water independently
- Leave hatchlings undisturbed in their nest
- Keep all lights off, including phone flashlights
- Avoid flash photography or video
All of the nest evaluation work conducted by this group is permitted through the FWC Marine Turtle Program under MTP# 23-033. Disoriented hatchlings should be reported immediately to the FWC by calling 1-888-404-FWCC.