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Sea Turtle Eggs Must Endure Storms, Humans to Survive

For more than 100 million years, nomadic sea turtles have inhabited Earth's oceans, long before the age of humanity.

They wander the open seas, voyage great distances by riding ocean currents and crest the chaotic swells of the Atlantic under the cover of nightfall to nest on sandy shores.

Sea turtle eggs must endure the wrath of coastal storms, varying temperatures and human interactions in order to survive before the hatchlings make their journey to the sea.

These ancient creatures, now endangered and protected, nest close to crashing waves and in the dunes of Florida's beaches each year.

"Our nesting season starts in March and ends on Oct. 31," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Sea Turtle Program Leader Robbin Trindell said.

Baby hatchlings will gestate in their eggs, deposited between the spring and fall, but the exact time in which this occurs varies by species and depends on temperature, according to Trindell.

The unrelenting forces of nature will claim some of the eggs, while only one in 1,000 of the successful, vulnerable hatchlings are likely to make it to adulthood.

"Any storm that erodes the beach is going to affect the nests," Trindell said. "We often lose some portion of our nests to erosion."

Female sea turtles deposit a large numbers of eggs at one time. Each clutch can have 100 to 150 eggs and can be found near the water or far back in the sands, Trindell added.

In order to ensure some of the young survive, mother turtles will deposit eggs in several nesting sites along the shoreline.

Another reason for the selective nesting sites, according to Trindell, is due to variations in temperature between the water and inland areas, which is theorized to dictate and vary the sex of the species.

Five species of sea turtle are found nesting in Florida along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts each season. These include the loggerhead, leatherback, Kemp's Ridley, the green and the hawksbill.

All of these species are oceanic and migratory, Trindell said, adding that it takes anywhere between 15 and 30 years for the animals to reach maturity.

The animals will travel to their foraging areas and often stay years before returning to former waters in order to nest, she said.

Male turtles will never return to the shores, but females move inland to dig their nests by using magnetic signals, finding the way back to their original birthplace.

Despite their aquatic habitat, sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles. Their successful nesting depends on the ability for the hatchlings to get oxygen.

"They can actually drown if the beaches are over-washed," Trindell said.

If a storm pushes water over the sand for more than five days during a specific phase in their gestation, the hatchlings will not survive. In addition, a small amount of moisture is necessary for their survival.

The sand which provides protection must also allow for gas exchange for the turtles in their eggs.

Rising sea levels also pose a threat because the animals require sandy beaches to nest, she said.

Eggs buried closer to the waves are susceptible to erosion and being swept out to sea, while other nests located inland are more susceptible to predators and even plants that can strangle nests with their roots.

While many of the dangers of the beach are presented to eggs and hatchlings, mother turtles are not immune to the same life-threatening circumstances.

Human obstructions, beach furniture, fishing line and large holes dug into the sand can entrap and kill adult and baby sea turtles.

Adult turtles can weigh hundreds of pounds, but their babies are small and vulnerable creatures. One of the reasons the animals are endangered is because of human interactions, Trindell said.

Some species were hunted for their shells and others had their eggs eaten, causing their numbers to decline, she said. It is now illegal to interfere, harass, kill or capture sea turtles.

"We are always very hopeful that we will have a successful season," FWC spokeswoman Diane Hirth said. "We get a lot of help from the public."

More than 2,000 people assist the agency in monitoring the beaches each day and marking nests.

Special certifications are required to conduct certain activities in wildlife conservation, but the public can call the agency at any time to report an animal in distress.

It is important not to leave obstructions on the beaches that can endanger the animals.

It is very important that people do not disturb the nests, Hirth said.

In addition, flashlights and lights from buildings can disorient the turtles and lure them away from the sea.

Sea turtles rely on vision of a more illuminated horizon of the ocean as opposed to the darkened background of the dunes when they make their way to the waves, Trindell said. If the background is illuminated, this can cause the turtles to move in the opposite direction.

"It is important to turn out lights near the beach," Hirth added.

Revenue earned through the organization's website from public donations and items for purchase all contribute to the agency's conservation efforts, she added.