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.
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).
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.”
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.