Where Do Florida Sea Turtle Hatchlings Go When They Leave the Nest?

by BeachHunter on July 24, 2010

Loggerhead hatchling at sea - copyright Blair Witherington

A loggerhead hatchling in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dr. Blair Witherington.

Where do hatchling sea turtles go when they leave the nest?

The short answer is: they swim like crazy far out to sea until they encounter lines of floating seaweed called Sargassum. That’s where they’ll hide, eat and grow. Once in the Sargassum, some species of young turtles may spend as much as a decade at sea before returning to Florida’s shallow coastal waters.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.

The BP oil spill is causing severe problems for sea turtles, and we are all worried about what will happen when this summer’s hatchlings head for open water. Off the west coast of Florida the turtles may not encounter much oil. But off the northern Gulf coast there is cause for concern. An encounter with oil could be deadly for baby sea turtles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service created controversy when they decided to allow this year’s annual release of newly-hatched Kemp’s ridley turtles to take place as usual off the Texas coast, despite the risk from petroleum tainted Gulf waters and Sargassum. Scientists determined after much consideration that the benefits of releasing the turtles outweighed the risks. You can read more about the controversial Kemp’s Ridley release in this Associated Press article.

What sea turtles do and where they go once they leave the nest is not well known.  Locating and catching turtles at sea is not easy. But Dr. Blair Witherington, a research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spends a lot of time studying turtles at sea. He generously shared some photos he took in the deep blue  Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Sarasota, of some of his favorite subjects: hatchling and post-hatchling sea turtles.

Locating hatchling sea turtles in the Sargassum.

Trying to find a tiny hatchling sea turtle in the thick Sargassum is not easy. Here, a net is being used to scoop up a baby turtle for examination. Photo courtesy of Dr. Blair Witherington.

Scientist capturing baby sea turtle in a net.

After a baby turtle is located, it is gently scooped up with a net to bring aboard the boat for measurements and close inspection before being released back into the Sargassum.

Holding a baby loggerhead turtle.

Here's a close look at a very young loggerhead sea turtle captured in the Gulf of Mexico near Sarasota, Florida. Photo courtesy of Dr. Blair Witherington.

If you have an interest in the in-water studies that have been done on sea turtles, Dr. Witherington has co-authored a technical report called In-Water Sea Turtle Monitoring and Research in Florida: Review and Recommendations. In the report he summarizes the in-water studies that have been done by various researchers as well as those studies still in progress. It’s not too technical for the average person to read, but it’s not  exactly a thriller either. It’s available free online. (click the image below to go to the download page).

Cover of in-water sea turtle study summmary report

Cover of the In-Water Sea Turtle technical report. Click the cover photo to go to the web site where you can download the report. Note: it's a 7MB pdf file, 245 pages.

The report contains a lot of interesting location-specific information from waters all around Florida. From an in-water study done in Tampa Bay, for instance, the researchers note that “marine turtles are relatively inconspicuous in Tampa Bay.” Four different species of sea turtle have been observed in Tampa Bay, and “it appears that ridleys and loggerheads may be year-round residents.”

Baby sea turtle swimming.

Here's a turtle's-eye view of a young loggerhead swimming near a clump of Sargassum seaweed. Photo courtesy of Dr. Blair Witherington.

Open ocean fish with his eye on a baby sea turtle. Turtle is in the "tucked" position.

Life at sea is not always easy when you're a tiny sea turtle. Here, a hatchling loggerhead has his flippers in the "tucked" position to guard them against nips from hungry fish. Photo courtesy of Dr. Blair Witherington.

When you see turtle tracks and nests on the beach this summer, remember that the portion of a sea turtle’s life that is visible to you is just one small but important phase in the life of a sea turtle.

sea turtle after laying eggs on a Florida beach

This green sea turtle has just finished laying eggs and covering her nest on a Florida beach. Photo courtesy of wildlife photographer Jim Angy of Brevard County, Florida.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristen Beck August 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Thanks for sharing this info!
Mike and I saw our first hatchling ever this year! I so wanted to “help it” get to the water but just stood back and watched. I have been asked several times why we shouldn’t help- my answer has been that the hatchlings need to crawl through the sand to develope muscles they will need for the long swims- is this the best answer?

Kristen Beck

2 beachhunter August 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Hi Kristen,
The best answer I think is that finding their way to the water is part of the orientation process a hatchling goes through which later helps them find their way back to the same beach to nest as adults. So they should be allowed to go through their natural process. Also, it is generally illegal to touch or interfere with hatchling sea turtles or turtle nests or with nesting turtles.

Sea turtles generally hatch at night when they are not such easy targets for birds, crabs, fish and other predators. Hatching turtles know it is night time by sensing the temperature of the sand. Once hatchlings emerge from their nest, any lights on the shoreline can interfere with the hatchling’s ability to find the water. They crawl toward the lights instead. Some hatchlings end up in parking lots, in peoples’ yards, or in the sand dunes stuck in the weeds until they become too tired to walk anymore.

If you find hatchlings at night that are crawling away from the water, guidelines say you can carry them to a dark part of the beach and release them so they can crawl to the water on their own. However, I would recommend trying to get in touch with the local turtle watch groups to let them know what is going on.

If you find a hatchling during the daytime that seems to be disoriented or not crawling to the water, guidelines say you should put them in a bucket with moist sand and cover it with a towel. Never put the turtle in water as they will tire themselves out swimming (they are programmed to swim like crazy after they are hatched and they only have enough energy stored to last a short while). Then you should call the local turtle rescue agency if you can find the number, or you should call Florida Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-342-5367 for further instructions. Most likely, a licensed volunteer will come and pick up the hatchling(s). Do NOT leave them out in the hot sun, and do NOT put them in an air conditioned space. A shaded location is best.

Here are two resources:
Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch http://www.islandturtles.com/

Sea Turtle Preservation Society (Indialantic, FL) http://www.seaturtlespacecoast.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=49&Itemid=54

3 Tootie August 20, 2010 at 2:10 am

A very interesting post.

4 Hailey Long May 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I was wonder if you have seen any sea turtles in Key West. Are they seen often? I wanted to see some hatch because I just move here.

5 beachhunter May 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I’ve seen adult sea turtles swimming in the Gulf of Mexico offshore from Key West. They do nest on some beaches in the Keys, though there are not a lot of sandy beaches suitable for turtle nesting in the Florida Keys. Seeing hatchling turtles emerging from the nest can be quite difficult. You have to know exactly where the nest is and what date the eggs are due to hatch. Then you have to sit by the nest all night for several days to wait for the turtles to emerge. The usually hatch at night. The other possibility is that if you walk along the beach often enough during the hatching season (August/September) very early in the morning (before sunrise), you may get lucky and see some hatchling turtles headed for the water. If that sound like a lot of work, it is. Here’s a turtle cam you might like to see: http://www.fla-keys.com/turtlecam/

6 teresa August 2, 2011 at 6:41 am

Thank you so much for sharing this information. I found the photos taken were awesome and as always I learn something new everytime I read anything in your blogs. I loved the turtle cam!!

7 beachhunter August 2, 2011 at 9:18 am

You’re welcome Teresa! Glad you enjoyed.

8 Ric E. Taylor June 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I live in the Interbay area of Tampa and fish the area. I have noticed loggerheads in Hillsborough Bay in my boat and along Bayshore Boulevard while on the sidewalk looking over the seawall. They have ranged in size from 10 to 20 inches. The bay has improved greatly; the best I have seen in years, Tampa native.

9 beachhunter June 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Glad to hear it Ric. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that info.

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