Hatching Plans

For Indian River County biologists, studying sea turtle nesting habits is a day at the beach

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Indian River County is home to loggerhead, green, and leatherback sea turtles, all of which nest on local beaches. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Indian River County is home to loggerhead, green, and leatherback sea turtles, all of which nest on local beaches. Photo by Sam Wolfe

It’s 7 a.m. on a warm, sunny August day, and Quintin Bergman, Indian River County’s sea turtle environmental specialist, is already up to his armpits in work. He’s lying face down on the beach at Tracking Station Park with his entire arm submerged in a recently hatched sea turtle nest. Next to him are assorted “office supplies”—an ATV, a clipboard, a rectangular sieve, and bug spray. 

Bergman, a biologist with special training in sea turtle conservation, heads the county’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program. The program coordinates a countywide database of sea turtle nesting data, manages a beachfront lighting and predator control program, and educates the public through ongoing outreach. Every day during nesting season–March through October–Bergman and other conservation biologists monitor 22.4 miles of shoreline from Sebastian Inlet to Round Island Park for nesting and hatching activity as well as impacts from animal or human predators. Nests are marked at regular intervals to allow the team to gather vital data about turtle behavior and habitat.

On this particular morning, Bergman is conducting a hatch success evaluation and inventory of a marked loggerhead nest by delicately counting and recording how many eggs hatched and how many did not. Only 28 percent hatched here, he reports—well below average. A few yards away, a green turtle nest yields more promising results: Of the 124 eggs excavated, 118 have hatched. Bergman reburies all the eggs he just excavated, as they add valuable nutrients for dune vegetation. 

“So many factors impact a turtle embryo’s development,” explains Bergman, “from the slightest movement of the egg, to rising tides, animal predators, and sand temperatures.” Although incubation generally takes 60 days, the temperature of the sand determines the speed at which embryos develop as well as the sex of the hatchling. “Think cool dudes and hot chicks,” he quips. “Cooler sand tends to produce more males, while warmer sand is conducive to producing females.”

Emerging unscathed from an egg the size of a Ping-Pong ball is just one of many hurdles hatchlings face in their young lives. After breaking out of their shells and climbing out of their 2-foot-deep nest in unison, they must make their way to the ocean—usually at night—using the reflection of the stars and moon off the water as their compass. An artificial light on the beach could cause them to go in the wrong direction. If they don’t reach the ocean quickly, they could die of dehydration or get eaten by a crab or bird. 

Quintin Bergman is an Indian River County environmental specialist whose job includes patrolling beaches on an ATV, monitoring sea turtle nests, and excavating hatched nests for research. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Quintin Bergman is an Indian River County environmental specialist whose job includes patrolling beaches on an ATV, monitoring sea turtle nests, and excavating hatched nests for research. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Once they are in the water and several miles offshore, the odds of survival are still against them. Oftentimes, they are eaten by larger fish or circling birds. Increasingly, they fall victim to fishing nets or succumb to accidental ingestion of garbage, such as plastic bags, balloons, or straws. Only one in a thousand baby turtles typically survive to adulthood—a statistic that explains why sea turtles, which can live 30 to 50 years, don’t put all their eggs in one basket.

Female sea turtles opt for the home-field advantage by loyally returning to nest three to seven times each year on the same beach where they were born. In fact, they often deposit eggs within a few hundred yards of their previous nest. Why? Because, as hatchlings, they are imprinted with their home beach during their very first crawl to the ocean. 

Emerging from the ocean at night, a pregnant sea turtle slowly crawls to a dry area on the beach above the high-water line. Using her powerful flippers as shovels, she digs a nest in the sand and deposits anywhere from 80 to 120 eggs, depending upon her species. 

When finished depositing her eggs, she uses her flippers to replace the sand, carefully concealing the nest from predators before crawling back into the ocean. The entire process takes more than an hour. 

“The selection of a nesting site is still a bit of a mystery,” says Bergman, citing that some nests are lower on the beach while others are higher on the dunes. He is quick to debunk the common myth that nesting activity higher on the beach portends a hurricane. 

Bergman excavates some turtle nests after the hatchlings have left, counting the number of empty eggs and determining what percentage failed to hatch. Unhatched eggs can be attributed to ghost crabs, ants, root and water intrusion into the nest, or a problem with the nesting female.  Photo by Kelly Rogers
Bergman excavates some turtle nests after the hatchlings have left, counting the number of empty eggs and determining what percentage failed to hatch. Unhatched eggs can be attributed to ghost crabs, ants, root and water intrusion into the nest, or a problem with the nesting female. Photo by Kelly Rogers

There are seven species of sea turtles, five of which are found in Florida: green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and Kemp’s ridley. “The beaches of Indian River County and Brevard County are a critically important nesting habitat for sea turtles,” says Bergman. “They are home to the highest concentration of loggerhead turtle nests in the world as well as the highest concentrations of green and leatherback turtles in the state.” 

“Last season, more than 7,100 sea turtle nests were laid on Indian River County beaches—slightly lower than the 2020 and 2019 seasons, but higher than 2018,” reports Bergman. “Loggerheads laid 5,629 nests in 2021, lower than the previous five-year average of 6,257. Green turtles laid 1,514 nests, just above the previous five-year average of 1,333. Leatherbacks were also low with only 24 nests compared to their five-year average of 45 nests.” Despite these below-average numbers, Bergman says nesting activity, particularly among loggerheads and greens, is on the rise since the county’s monitoring program began in the 2000s. 

It takes about 60 days for a sea turtle to emerge from its nest. This green hatchling can live upwards of 50 years, and if it reaches adulthood, can weigh up to 450 pounds. Photo by Quintin Bergman
It takes about 60 days for a sea turtle to emerge from its nest. This green hatchling can live upwards of 50 years, and if it reaches adulthood, can weigh up to 450 pounds. Photo by Quintin Bergman

Sea turtles are among the world’s oldest living creatures. They have roamed the Earth’s oceans for 110 million years, virtually unchanged, while the world they inhabit increasingly jeopardizes their very existence. Pollution, coastal development, boat strikes, and bycatch from fisheries are just some of the human activities threatening their long-term survival.  

The federal Endangered Species Act lists all five Florida sea turtle species as endangered (green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley) or threatened (loggerhead). This designation makes it illegal to harm, harass, or kill any sea turtles, hatchlings, or eggs. It is also illegal to import, sell, or transport turtles or their products. 

Sea turtles are unique in that they play a vital role in the survival of two ecosystems—beach/dune and marine—that are also critically important to humans. Turtle eggs, both hatched and unhatched, provide important nutrients for dune vegetation, which in turn helps stabilize dunes, which are a first line of defense against storms. They naturally erode and accrete with the fluctuation of waves and wind. 

Bergman reports that during sea turtle nesting season, March through October, there is a biologist on Indian River County beaches every day monitoring turtle activity, marking nests, and educating the public. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Bergman reports that during sea turtle nesting season, March through October, there is a biologist on Indian River County beaches every day monitoring turtle activity, marking nests, and educating the public. Photo by Kelly Rogers

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 70 percent of Indian River County’s 22.4 miles of barrier island beach is considered “critically eroded,” meaning that both the turtles’ nesting habitat and our own beachfront interests are threatened. 

“Unfortunately, when beaches erode, it prompts beachfront homeowners to erect seawalls,” says Bergman. “Seawalls only expedite the erosion process, and without a beach, turtles don’t have a place to nest.” Humans also don’t have a place to walk, fish, swim, surf, and otherwise enjoy the oceanfront.

Green sea turtles can be found nesting along Indian River County beaches. Their diet includes seagrasses and algae. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Green sea turtles can be found nesting along Indian River County beaches. Their diet includes seagrasses and algae. Photo by Sam Wolfe

“Because seawalls are permanent, unmovable structures, they prevent sand from being added to beaches and recovering from storms,” Bergman explains. They deflect the energy from ocean waves back onto the beach in front of and along the sides of the wall, further eroding and lowering the beach at the seawall. Seawalls prevent turtles from reaching the uppermost areas of the beach, forcing them to nest in areas that are frequently under water. Studies show that fewer turtles nest on beaches with seawalls.  

Indian River County’s Beach Preservation Plan addresses the beach erosion problem with a strategy that includes adding beach-quality sand as well as planting vegetation to stabilize dunes. Each beach restoration project incorporates a biological monitoring plan to ensure that renourishment efforts consider every aspect of the sea turtles’ habitat. That’s why, for example, beach renourishment projects are performed outside the prime turtle nesting season. 

Bergman introduces Turtsiops, a juvenile green turtle he found while patrolling near South Beach in April 2021. With the help of Coastal Connections, he released the turtle at South Beach June 16, 2021, after a period of recovery at Brevard Zoo. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Bergman introduces Turtsiops, a juvenile green turtle he found while patrolling near South Beach in April 2021. With the help of Coastal Connections, he released the turtle at South Beach June 16, 2021, after a period of recovery at Brevard Zoo. Photo by Kelly Rogers

“Beaches are a vital resource to our coastline residents and visitors,” explains Eric Charest, Indian River County’s natural resources manager. “While beaches are known to offer economic and recreational value, they also serve as a protection mechanism against hurricanes and major storms and provide a critical environmental habitat, especially for sea turtles. The county works with partners at the federal, state, and local levels on cost-effective and efficient beach renourishment projects to mitigate storm damage and build a more resilient coastline.”

The prospect of healthy beaches harboring future generations of sea turtles is heartening to Bergman, Charest and many others who value the delicate habitat we share with our ocean’s ancient mariners. With nearly 14,500 people moving to Indian River County within the last four years, it seems more important than ever to continue educating the public about the seasonal reptiles that share the ocean, lagoon, and beaches with us. 

The county’s coordination with Ecological Associates, Disney Conservation, Sebastian Inlet State Park, Sebastian Inlet District, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, and Coastal Connections helps ensure that visitors and residents understand the importance of maintaining a healthy habitat for sea turtles. These organizations, all of whom hold Florida Fish and Wildlife marine turtle permits, are reliable sources of information and host regular public turtle walks, hatch success evaluations, hatchling releases, and coastal cleanup days. 

Public outreach can go a long way toward protecting sea turtles, says Bergman. “I know I’m making an impact when I see the look on a child’s face after they’ve seen a sea turtle for the very first time. It really makes my day.”

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Meet Indian River County’s Sea Turtles

Loggerhead 

Shell length 2–3 feet 

Weight 155–375 pounds

Diet Crabs, mollusks, and sea pens (soft marine invertebrates related to coral)

Green

Shell length 3–4 feet

Weight 250–450 pounds

Diet Sea grass and algae

Leatherback 

Shell length 4–6 feet

Weight 660–1,000 pounds

Diet Jellyfish

A female leatherback made history when she came ashore and laid her eggs on February 22, 2022—the earliest known kickoff to Indian River County’s sea turtle nesting season.

Biologists mark between 5 and 15 percent of the sea turtle nests found on Indian River County beaches, which they monitor throughout the nesting season. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Biologists mark between 5 and 15 percent of the sea turtle nests found on Indian River County beaches, which they monitor throughout the nesting season. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Turtle Etiquette

Do 

  • Report dead, sick, or injured sea turtles to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: 888-404-3922
  • Plant native dune vegetation instead of building seawalls or other structures on your beachfront property
  • Use turtle-friendly lighting if you have a beachfront home
  • Use caution when boating
  • Reduce your use of plastics
  • Purchase a “Helping Sea Turtles Survive” Florida specialty license plate
  • Stay off the dunes
  • Join a beach cleanup day
  • Opt for sustainably caught seafood

Don’t 

  • Use flashlights or cell phone cameras on the beach during nesting season
  • Touch or disturb a sea turtle when she is laying her eggs
  • Disturb sea turtle tracks, which provide useful information to biologists 
  • Handle eggs or disturb sea turtle nests
  • Pick up an errant hatchling, even to “help”
  • Leave fishing line behind
  • Feed sea turtles
  • Leave litter or beach furniture on the beach

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