The white sandy shores of Dauphin Island see many visitors each year. But, some special visitors come back year after year for nesting: Sea Turtles. Taking care of the wildlife on Dauphin Island is extremely important. Read on to learn everything you need to know about sea turtle nesting.
What kind of Sea Turtles nest on Dauphin Island?
The predominant species of sea turtles we find nesting on Dauphin Island are Loggerhead turtles. Occasionally, Kemp's Ridley turtles and Green Sea Turtles nest on our beaches, as well.
When does sea turtle nesting begin and end?
Sea Turtle nesting season begins in May and concludes in August. Volunteers begin to patrol the beaches on May 1 and end patrols on August 31. Volunteers continue to monitor the remaining nests until October 31. The turtles come in from east to west, so typically Fort Morgan and other surrounding areas along the Gulf Coast beaches see turtles nesting before Dauphin Island.
How do you know where their nets are?
Our volunteers patrol the island every morning starting at daybreak. Patrols are broken into half-mile sections and the west-end of the island is patrolled via UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicles). While patrolling, volunteers are looking for a “crawl” - a distinct flipper pattern where the female turtle climbed across the sand, laid a nest, and went back to the Gulf. Each species of turtles have a unique crawl pattern. Sometimes we see a "false crawl" in which she decided not to lay her eggs for whatever reason. Once volunteers find a nest, the area is roped off and marked so people do not disturb the nests.
How many eggs do they lay?
Sea turtles lay on average 110 eggs per nest. The eggs are round and leathery, and look a lot like ping pong balls! Though it seems like a lot of turtles, only a small portion of these will actually make it to adulthood.
How long until they hatch?
The incubation time for our turtles is between 55-75 days, however, this hatching time can be influenced by the weather. Volunteers begin to check on the nests around day 55 and actually use a stethoscope to listen to the nest for movement. Volunteers are trained to listen for a "waterfall" sound, which would indicate that the turtles have hatched and are scratching towards the surface. Most of the time, hatchlings will emerge from their nests at night, and volunteers will be on standby to make sure that they make it to the water safely!
Do the mothers or fathers come back to check on the eggs?
Once a female turtle lays her eggs on the beach and tucks them in safely, she returns to the water and does not come back to check on the nest. Fun fact: female turtles will actually return to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs!
What can others do to help protect the sea turtles?
There are several things you can do to help protect sea turtles. The first major concern is unnecessary light on the beach. Sea turtle hatchlings are guided by stars and moonlight to know which direction to get to the water. Bright lights from flashlights, condos, or houses can disorient them causing them to turn away from the water. Retrofitting beach homes with turtle-friendly lighting and using red lights or filters over our flashlights while on the beach at night is helpful. Locals and visitors alike also need to make sure to fill in any holes dug on the beach before leaving at the end of the day; mama turtles can fall into the holes and become trapped as she is trying to navigate the beach to nest. Lastly, being mindful of our pollution and keeping plastics away from the water will keep all marine life safe.
Jenni, what do you and your family do to help during nesting season?
This is my first year as a team leader for the Share the Beach Dauphin Island volunteer team. I trained with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and an Alabama Coastal Foundation biologist to make sure we are protecting this endangered species according to the Federal Endangered Species Recovery guidelines. I, along with my team co-leader, help train volunteers to assist us in patrolling the island for nests, relocating nests from tidal influence as necessary, and aiding nest hatches and excavations. I am fortunate that my daughter has been able to assist and use this volunteer experience to help her in her marine science studies. She and I spend many mornings patrolling the island’s beautiful west end on the UTV, and we spend many late starry nights sitting by the nests, awaiting their hatching. This has been a very rewarding experience for our family and we are looking forward to a great sea turtle season!
If you are interested in learning more about volunteering with the sea turtle program, you can find out more information from the Alabama Coastal Foundation. If you ever see a turtle on the beach, a possible crawl, or have concerns, please call 1-866-SEA-TURTLE.