Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Sea Turtle Nesting in the Archie Carr Refuge

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Aerial photo of Archie Carr NWR

Aerial of Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

Identified as the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in North America, the Archie Carr Refuge consists of 20.5 miles of coastal dune habitat from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso along Florida's Atlantic coast. Three species of sea turtles nest within the refuge; loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles. The Kemp's Ridley and the hawksbill sea turtles forage in the offshore waters of Florida's Atlantic coast. The refuge not only protects the second most important nesting beaches in the world for Loggerheads, it also protects the state's vanishing barrier island ecosystem and several other endangered species.
Leatherback sea turtle nesting

Leatherback Nesting

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of all reptiles in the world. Their average weight is 1200 lbs, but the largest recorded was over 2000 lbs! It is the most endangered (listed in 1970) of all 8 species of sea turtles. The leatherback is named for its absence of a hard carapace. All other sea turtles have a hard shell, or carapace, on their back. Leatherbacks swim the farthest, dive the deepest (down to 3000 ft) and into the coldest waters in search of jellyfish. Isn't it ironic that the largest reptile in the world eats only jellyfish, which are made up of 90% water?
Green Sea turtle emerging from the surf.

Green Sea Turtle Emerging

Listed as endangered in 1978, we are seeing an increase in nesting numbers along Florida's beaches. Green sea turtles aren't actually green but were named for the color of their fat – maybe because they are the only vegetarians of all the adult sea turtle species. Juvenile green sea turtles rely on the Indian River Lagoon to provide healthy sea grass beds as food. The weight of an adult green averages around 300-350 lbs. Currently, the most important nesting beaches for greens are in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. On the Archie Carr Refuge, greens have a biennial nesting cycle, laying up to 2800 nests on their high year and up to 200 nests on their low year. Nesting numbers for the entire state of Florida computes to 8000 and 500 respectively.
Loggerhead turtle tracks on the beach.

Loggerhead Tracks

If you see sea turtle tracks on the beach within the Archie Carr Refuge, it is most likely a Loggerhead. Almost 90% of all Loggerhead nesting within the United States occurs in Florida. And approximately 25% of those are within the 20-mile stretch of the Archie Carr beaches. Each species of sea turtle has distinct tracks and the track left behind in the morning allows researchers to identify the species.
Loggerhead turtle nesting.

Loggerhead Nesting

Loggerheads are the most common of all sea turtles and are the only turtle listed as Threatened (1970). All other sea turtles are listed as endangered. Listing gives species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Loggerheads are named for their large head. As carnivores, their massive jaws can chomp down on conches, clams, mollusks, crabs, sea urchins and whelks. The weight of loggerheads is slightly smaller than greens, at an average of about 300 lbs. Loggerheads nest between April and September, and during that time, there are approximately 80,000 nests laid on Florida's beaches, with 20,000 of those deposited within the 20-mile stretch of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.
Loggerhead turtle lowering her profile before nesting.

Loggerhead Lowering Profile

Loggerheads become sexually mature at the age of 20 – 25 years old. Females emerge at night to nest above the high tide line against the dune. In the first stage of nesting, females will dig a body pit to lower their profile on the beach. This makes them less visible to predators while they are vulnerable.
Loggerhead turtle laying her eggs.

Loggerhead Laying Eggs

Next, they carve a 2 ft deep egg chamber using their rear flippers. Loggerheads lay an average of 100 eggs per nesting, dropping 2-3 eggs with each push. The eggs are "ping pong" ball size and are leathery in texture to cushion the 2 ft drop into the chamber. The eggs will incubate for approximately 2 months.
Loggerhead turtle covering up her eggs.

Loggerhead Covering Up

Once she has finished laying her eggs, she will begin the meticulous process of covering up. Using her rear flippers again, she grabs sand and hard packs it on top of the eggs. The dexterity of their rear flippers is better than that of the human hand!
Loggerhead turtle disguising her nest.

Loggerhead Nest Disguising

Once she is certain that she has protected her eggs with enough hard packed sand, she begins the process of disguising the nest. Using her front flippers, she will twist and turn tossing sand all over the site to make the nest less apparent to predators.
Loggerhead heading back to the ocean.

Loggerhead Crawling Down the Beach

Once finished nesting, the turtle will leave the beach never to know the fate of her nest. Her eggs will incubate for approximately 2 months. During that time she may nest 4-7 more times. A very energy-consuming year! Therefore, she will not nest again for 2-3 years.
Loggerhead heading entering the surf.

Loggerhead Returning to Ocean

Males never crawl out of the water but are waiting in the offshore waters to mate with females. Females may mate with several males during the nesting season. Several males can fertilize eggs within the female and sperm can continue to fertilize eggs up to 6 months.
Hatchlings emerging from the nest.

Hatchling Emergence

If the eggs successfully incubate for 2 months, hatchlings will emerge at night in response to the cooler surface temperatures of the sand. Hatchlings emerge at night to avoid predators and the high daytime temperatures of the summer. Eggs incubated toward the bottom of the nest, at cooler temperatures, will turn into males and eggs incubated at warmer temperatures, toward the top of the nest, will turn into females.
Hatchlings crawling toward the sea.

Hatchlings Crawling

Emergence is a group effort. A hatchlings instinct is to crawl down the beach towards the brightest horizon, which is in natural circumstances the ocean. Only 1 in 1000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood. Beach predators include raccoons, birds and crabs. Ocean predators include sharks, fish and birds, although, they will face many human caused threats to life on their journey to adulthood.
Hatchlings in the surf.

Hatchlings in Surf

If they make it to the water, the hatchlings will dive to the bottom and ride the undertow out. They will swim for about 24 hours nonstop until they reach the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream and the protection of the Sargasso Sea. Here, they will spend up to 10 years eating and sleeping before they migrate to reefs, lagoons and bays.
Participants in a turtle watch program.

Turtle Watch Programs

If they make it to the age of sexual maturity, they will be 20-25 years old. If you have ever observed a nesting sea turtle on a guided sea turtle walk, you observed the 1 in 1000 hatchlings that makes it to adulthood. Sea turtle educators in the state of Florida may apply for a permit to conduct sea turtle walks with the public. Permits are required because sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act and guides are trained to conduct programs without disturbing the turtles. If you should ever see a sea turtle on the beach at night, be very still and quiet and do not approach her. Especially important during the nesting months of April – September, do not walk on the beach at night with a flashlight. Flashlights can disturb a sea turtle enough that they will abort their nesting attempt and leave the beach.
Refuge ranger with a green sea turtle.

Refuge Manager with Green Turtle

There are many combined efforts to protect and save sea turtles and their habitat. Sea turtles were afforded congressional protection as early as 1900. Sea turtles have existed for over 100 million years, and in just the past 100 years, the human economy has caused all eight species to be listed as endangered or threatened. Today, there are international, national, state and county laws protecting and attempting to recover sea turtle populations. Locally, the best thing going for sea turtles is the protection given to them by the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Sea turtles need your help too. You can make a difference. Click here for the Sea Turtle Brochure to learn more about how you can help.
Sunrise at the Archie Carr refuge.

Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge Sunrise

"Future generations may look back and decide that while we were trying to save the bald eagle, what really happened is that the eagle – and the manatee and the prairie fringed orchid – saved us." — Douglas H. Chadwick
Last updated: October 10, 2008
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