Pensacola Beach now has a rare, endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle nest. It marks the third nest this season on the Escambia County shoreline.The female came ashore to nest on Tuesday morning, giving some Pensacola Beach visitors an exciting - yet unusual - daytime sight.
A short video captured the nesting as beachgoers quietly watched.
“It was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, I missed her reentry into the Gulf of Mexico by just a few minutes,” said Robert Turpin, Marine Resources manager for Escambia County. WUWF caught up with him on Wednesday on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Believe it or not, as we’re speaking right now, I’m looking out the window of the boat and I see a Kemp’s Ridley on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Not surprisingly, my response was, “Come on, really?”
“I kid you not,” he replied. “That’s an incredible coincidence, but I’m literally looking at a Kemp’s Ridley out the window of the boat. They have a very distinctive shape and coloration.”
Turpin described the Kemp’s Ridley has having a more rounded carapace or shell than other sea turtles in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, he says the skin on the head is a lighter coloration than green or loggerhead turtles, which are most common in this region.
Two loggerhead nests were recorded on Escambia beaches earlier this week.
In late May, National Park Service biologists identified the first sea turtle nests of the season at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Three were found in the park’s Perdido Key Area.
Four species of sea turtles visit local beaches May through October to lay their eggs. In order, from the most common loggerhead, the green sea turtle is next, then the critically, endangered Kemp’s Ridley, which is one of the smallest; it grows up to two feet long and 100 pounds. Leatherbacks, which can grow up to eight feet and 2,000 pounds, are most rare.
According to Turpin, all species, except the Kemp’s Ridley, come ashore to nest at night.
“It’s an interesting nester here on Pensacola Beach, because they nest during the daytime,” he said. “They’re commonly nesting when people are on the beach, so it was a very good opportunity for people to see that we have sea turtles nesting on Pensacola Beach and to understand why we’re so careful that when we enjoy the beach, we do so in a way that minimizes negative impacts to sea turtles.”
The county quickly responded by sending a Public Works employee to stake off the area around the turtle nest to protect the nest from disturbances. Additionally, the county depends on an experienced crew of sea turtle volunteers to keep an eye out.
“We have trained volunteers that work under a permit that is issued to Mark Nicholas, our sea turtle manager here in Escambia County. And, because these are state and federally protected species, one has to have a permit or be permitted, properly trained and authorized to interact with sea turtles,” Turpin said. “And, that’s interaction during the nesting, during the hatching, or sometimes – unfortunately – we have stranded sea turtles that are either impacted by boats or fishing gear and have to be rescued.”
In a press release from Escambia County, longtime volunteer Brenda Sexton reported that the female Kemp’s Ridley dug about 1.5 to 2 feet deep and in the hole she laid about 50-100 eggs. The turtle then used her flippers to cover the eggs with sand for camouflage. The whole process took about an hour, which is why Turpin didn’t get there in time.
But, upon arrival, his attention turned immediately to the possible weekend from Tropical Storm Cristobal, “That was actually the first thing on my mind, was looking at the distance of the nest from the shoreline, looking at the elevation of the nest. Obviously, we knew there was the potential for rough seas, high-water levels and that is always one of the biggest natural factors in our list of concerns for these turtles.”
Turpin acknowledges that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows relocation of endangered nests, but only in limited circumstances.
“They (FWC) prefer that the natural system takes its course and we’re only to relocate nests that are within a very short distance of the last high-tide line and this nest would not qualify under the state’s criteria,” Turpin explained.
As far as the tropics are concerned, it’s a wait-and-see situation for the turtle nest, much as it is for residents. Otherwise, Mother Nature notwithstanding, beach visitors and residents are encouraged to do their part to help protect sea turtles and their hatchlings, which Turpin says have a finite energy supply.
“Survival of that turtle depends upon it quickly entering the Gulf of Mexico, getting past the predator zone and finding its way out to the feeding grounds. So, any amount of disorientation or “mis-orientation” due to lighting, any additional energy used up trying to crawl out of holes or ruts on the beach, anything that minimizes that turtle’s survivability affects all of us.”
That means, lights out, leave no trace, throw away trash and fill any holes dug in the sand before you leave.
Such recommended measures will clear the way for additional nests during the 2020 season. And, in about 60 days, these actions will help those Kemp’s Ridley hatchlings find their way.