Do you like your turtle eggs scrambled, fried or poached? Hopefully, none of those. But some are indulging in the latter. Of seven species of sea turtles, five frequent Florida beaches to lay their eggs. Unlike tourists, the turtles don’t have an easy or relaxing sojourn. They live most of their lives at sea, migrating up to 1400 miles between feeding grounds and the laying site. They come ashore, each one to the same location where she was hatched, to lay her own clutch of between 70 and 190 eggs, depending on the species.
No maternal nurturing here. She digs a hole, deposits and buries her eggs and returns to the sea. Mating occurs between May and October, so it isn’t unusual to find nests during peak vacation times, particularly in Florida, which has 90% of sea turtle nesting area in the continental United States.
A recent news article reported nests being disturbed on a South Florida beach. Eggs were completely removed from two nests and three others showed signs of interference. All five sea turtle species in Florida are protected and it’s illegal to harm them or their eggs. Under the Florida Marine Turtle Protection Act, stolen eggs carry fines of $100 each, a costly breakfast. More so for the turtles.
A sweet, elderly friend, a self- described Florida Cracker, tells me she and her family consumed turtle eggs when she was a child. “Little did we know,” she says. She has raised three sons, all who became wildlife officers, so I am confident they have more than atoned for those exotic breakfasts.
But in many Central American and Asian countries today, turtle eggs are considered a food source. In some cultures (one in Mexico), turtles are a religious icon and people consume them and their eggs. For hundreds of years, Europeans prized turtle soup. Many Latin and Caribbean cultures consider sea turtle eggs an aphrodisiac. But in this over-fed American culture, anyone who stoops to stealing sea turtle eggs must be either uneducated or gluttonous.
Our Florida turtles, green, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, leatherback and loggerhead, face enormous perils besides poaching. Development along nesting beaches pose a huge threat. The hatchlings mostly emerge at night and head for the sea, which sparkles with the moon’s reflection off wavelets. They can easily be confused by lights from human habitations and head the wrong way. These days folks living along the beach are doing much better at keeping outdoor lighting to a minimum, but many simply don’t know or refuse to inconvenience themselves during mating season.
When they hatch, the tiny turtles make their run to the ocean, dodging sea birds and other predators. Only one in one thousand survive to adulthood. On this, their first outing, they must dodge raccoons, foxes, dogs, birds, ghost crabs, and humans. Once in the water, they become prey for carnivorous fish. Babies and adults are vulnerable to oil spills, marine and shore debris and entanglement in fish nets. Turtle excluder devices (TEDS) ae not consistently used by trawlers. TEDS, which allow turtles to escape nets and prevent them from drowning, are not uniformly required around the Gulf, and are considered a nuisance by many shrimpers.
As if all those obstacles were not enough, climate change is having an effect. Temperature determines the sex of embryonic turtles – and gators. Below 85 degrees F (30 C) males develop. Above 85 degrees, predominantly females emerge. This could certainly affect future breeding.
What’s a turtle to do? Hopefully be encouraged by some good news. At the Archie Carr Wildlife refuge in Brevard County the 2015 season ended with 12,905 sea turtle nests recorded on a thirteen- mile stretch of the refuge. Imperiled species are still working toward recovery. Education is getting better, but there are still those who don’t see their self- gratification as harmful to the beautiful world we were given. Even hefty fines and threat of imprisonment don’t deter the selfish.
Where to See Sea Turtles
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a list of 23 places where you can see captive sea turtles, many being rehabilitated. They also list 17 organizations permitted to conduct public sea turtle watches. These all take place in June and July and reservations are required. I have observed a turtle laying her eggs and it is an amazing sight. Seeing this lumbering creature drag herself onto the beach and use her flippers to dig a large hole will have you holding your breath with emphatic pangs. You’ll find yourself pulling for her as she slowly deposits a huge amount of eggs. Exhausted, she covers the cache, then again drags herself over the sand and back to the sea. It’s enough to make you want to cheer.
If you do go, call me. I’d love to join you. At Seeturtles.org there are research and volunteer expeditions you can join, going to Cuba, Nicaragua, Beliz and Costa Rica. When you visit the beach, keep outside lights off from May to October, and close the curtains. Encourage those around you to do the same. If you live near a beach, volunteer as a monitor, marking nests as tracks are observed. And hope. Hope that those who eat poached sea turtle eggs don’t choke on them, but at least get a good case of indigestion.
Picture credit: Rene Perez Massola
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