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A bright yellow sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean.
Information icon Sunrise at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Diana Gu, USFWS.

Sea turtle monitoring at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge

To this day it feels surreal that I was hired to conduct sea turtle nesting surveys on a section of Jupiter Island along the Atlantic coast of Southern Florida. I have watched numerous clumsy hatchlings emerge, and borne witness to countless stunning sunrises. Working on one of the most remote undeveloped beaches on a barrier island in Florida on an ATV can sound glamorous, but in order to collect consistent and accurate data on these elusive creatures our surveyors have to wake up before dawn and battle the elements daily: scorching Florida summer heat, sandflies, and the oh-so distinctive smell of half-baked sea turtle eggs during nest excavations. The surveys can be physically and mentally challenging on long days, but the insights we gather to better manage our refuge are truly invaluable.

A Service employee reaches into a sea turtle nest on a beach.
Biological technician Diana Gu locates a clutch of green sea turtle nest. Photo by USFWS.

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1969 primarily to protect and manage nesting habitat for species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) including the threatened loggerhead , endangered leatherback, and threatened green sea turtles. Our refuge has one of the longest data records for sea turtle nesting of any beach in the United States. Under our partner Ecological Associates Inc.’s permit, training, and guidance, their surveyors and our team monitor a 3.5 mile stretch of beach every day from March-October and tapered off to three times per week until the final disposition of each nest on the beach is determined. In addition to daily nesting surveys like the Index Nesting Beach Survey and State Nesting Beach Survey, we also conduct Nest Productivity Assessments, and report disorientations, strandings and salvages, which mostly consist of reporting the occasional deceased sea turtle that washed ashore. These reports are sent to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to fulfill state requirements for sea turtle nesting beaches. All the data we collect is equally vital—not only do the raw nesting numbers help track the pulse of these ESA-listed species annually, but the data can give us insights on how factors like construction projects and storm events affect nesting and reproductive success.

A plastic bucket containing dozens of sea turtle hatchlings.
Loggerhead hatchlings ready for release after nest productivity assessment excavation. Photo by Diana Gu, USFWS.

Sea turtles continue to face significant adversity despite efforts to minimize human impacts. Challenges include: urban glow, which disorients both adults and hatchlings, man-made obstructions (beach furniture, debris) left on the beach that can inhibit or discourage nesting, and loss of nesting grounds due to development and sea level-rise. Having worked at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge for a year, I observed the daily changes in the topography of the beach from dramatic beach scarping due to high tides and erosion after Hurricane Matthew. Despite these challenges, in 2016 the Treasure Coast collectively produced record-breaking nesting numbers thanks to decades of collaborative efforts with state, federal, and private agencies to battle urban night glow, remove beach debris, and of course continued research and public outreach.

A large sea turtle partially covered in sand on a beach.
Arya, a late nesting tagged leatherback encountered during a daily nest survey. Photo by Diana Gu, USFWS.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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