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A tiny loggerhead hatchling hustles towards the ocean.
Loggerhead hatchling meets ocean. Photo by Becky Skiba, USFWS.

Moonlighting in Alabama

Volunteers help U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with sea turtle nest hatchlings


It was a warm and breezy night on the dunes of Orange Beach, Alabama, and Lisa Graham had a special babysitting assignment. While most folks were getting ready for bed, Lisa sat on a fold-out chair plopped firmly into the sand. In front of her were four wooden stakes, with neon tape cordoning off curious onlookers.

Lisa was keeping a watchful eye on a sea turtle nest, which laid beneath the sand. A Share the Beach volunteer for more than 16 years, Graham knew the routine: a female sea turtle nested in that spot two months ago, which meant the eggs could hatch at any time.

“The nest is on day 62, and we’ve been hearing noises for about five days,” she explained. “We were hoping to get lucky and have a hatch tonight.”

Share the Beach is a non-profit organization of more than 400 passionate volunteers dedicated to protecting baby sea turtles, or hatchlings. Each morning, volunteers scour the beach, looking for any signs of a sea turtle nest. Three types of turtles nest in Alabama: loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and green sea turtles. Volunteers look for marks in the sand made by the turtle’s flippers, known as a crawl.

A trail in the sand leading to the ocean.
Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtle tracks and a sunrise at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Keenan Adams, USFWS.

Once a nest is spotted, volunteers mark it with stakes, tape and a sign, letting the public know to stay away from the delicate eggs.

Volunteers then monitor the nest until hatching, which can happen anytime between 51 and 73 days after nesting.

“We use a stethoscope to listen for scratching sounds in the nest. When we hear the noise, we’ll up our shifts,” said Graham.

Biologists mark a sea turtle nest on a beach with bright flagging and signs.
The standard signage and boundary marking of a sea turtle nest. Photo by Bonnie Strawser, USFWS.

“Sea turtles like dark beaches”

So why such a fuss over a turtle?

Years ago, the reptiles’ numbers were dwindling. Not as many sea turtles were nesting on Alabama’s beaches. Biologists say bright lights from condominiums and parking lots were deterring sea turtles from nesting.
“Nesting sea turtles want a dark beach with very little obstacles or interference,” explained Shannon Holbrook, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alabama Ecological Services field office. “If there are too many lights, they may not come up to the sand or find a suitable spot. She may drop the eggs into the Gulf and lose that nest.”

A dozen tiny sea turtles on a sandy beach.
Loggerhead hatchlings. Photo by Tonya Long, FWC.

The animals prefer a dark beach because they rely on the light of the moon to guide them into and out of the water. If there are too many bright lights on the beach, a turtle could get confused. Instead of following the moonlight back into the Gulf, it could mistakenly follow a street lamp into a parking lot. The turtle could get stranded, and even die.

“Before we put up all of these condos on the beach, it was a nice, dark beach. Then, the turtles would go to the brightest light, which would be the reflection on the water,” said Graham.

Lighting issues aren’t the only problems these sea turtles face. In popular tourist spots such as Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, visitors will inevitably leave their messes behind, which also deters turtles from nesting.

“Obstacles and trash are left on the beach,” said Holbrook. “They’ll run into a chair or tent, and either get stuck or just turn around and not nest.”

“Once the turtles break out of their eggshells, it’s a process”

As the sun began to set, Graham pulled out a stethoscope and buried the diaphragm gently on top of the nest. With a headset over her ears, she could hear the sounds of scratching and sand collapsing. The signs were clear that hatchlings were on the brink of emergence. When the baby sea turtles come out of the sand, the event is also known as a sea turtle boil.

Two tiny sea turtles emerge from the sand.
Loggerhead hatchlings emerging from a nest. Photo by Tonya Long, FWC.

“You never get used to seeing a boil,” she said. “It’s so exciting!”

A crowd gathered as each little hatchling crawled out of the sand. One by one, their flippers scooted through the dunes.

But something wasn’t right.

The hatchlings weren’t going towards the Gulf. Instead, they were headed in the opposite direction, toward a lighted parking lot. Once again, the baby sea turtles were confused by artificial lights. Volunteers took note of the incident to report it to the Service.

“Share the Beach documents where the sea turtles are going, and tries to find a reason for the disorientation. That way, we can follow up and fix the problem,” said Holbrook.

“Unfortunately, this confusion is all too common. If it weren’t for volunteers, these hatchlings probably wouldn’t have made it.”

“Work towards recovery”

Just as humans are the cause of the turtle’s decline, humans will also have a hand in their recovery. The Alabama field office has a strong alliance with Share the Beach, and together, biologists hope to educate folks on the importance of dim lighting, and clean beaches. Their message is being heard; this year, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach launched a program called Leave Only Footprints, urging people to pick up their beach chairs, coolers and other obstacles that prevent sea turtles from nesting. Holbrook also conducts lighting workshops to teach developers to use sea turtle-friendly lights in their facilities.

“We want to eliminate the threats so sea turtles can nest properly, and the population can sustain itself without human interaction or interference,” she said.

Those outreach efforts have paid off. In 2003, biologists documented 58 nests on the Alabama Gulf Coast. In 2016, those numbers jumped to a whopping 235.

But there’s still more work to do. For now, Share the Beach volunteers will continue to monitor sea turtle nests until every last hatchling has made it into the water.

“It’s a passion… a passion we all have for sea turtles,” beamed Lisa.

For more information about Share the Beach, visit alabamaseaturtles.com.

Learn more about the Alabama Ecological Services Field Office.

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