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

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.

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