The Long Walk to Sea
Updated: May 11, 2022
This blog highlights a hatchlings journey from nest to sea. It looks at the difficulties they face including natural predators and human induced threats. It finishes by exploring the current work being carried out to reduce these anthropogenic threats and ensure every hatchling makes it in their long walk to sea.
Although turtles spend the majority of their life in the ocean, the most vital parts of a turtle’s life take place at the beach. When a female turtle is ready to lay her eggs she will crawl onto the same beach she was born on and find a suitable spot to lay her eggs. She uses her back flippers to create a perfectly round nest, drops around 100 eggs in there, then covers it up and crawls back to sea. Between 45-90 days later, the eggs hatch and the baby hatchlings are faced with the challenge of making it to the sea.
It is vitally important that hatchlings make their own way to sea and walk the beach instead of being put there by humans. Walking to sea gives their flippers time to warm up before their long swim ahead and it is also the time when a hatchling imprints on that beach. Adult females return to the same beach they were born on to lay their own eggs as a result of homing behaviour. This is why protecting nesting habitat is so important. There are plenty of beaches humans can relax on, but suitable nesting habitats are diminishing.
When hatchlings come out of their nests they are instantly drawn to the brightest horizon. Before humans flocked to beaches and flooded them with artificial light, the brightest part of a natural beach was the horizon over the ocean. The moon reflecting off the sea creates a path for the turtles to follow and going towards the light should get them to the water quickly. Somewhere in the world, on a quiet, dark beach, a hatchling has broken the surface of the sand and is scrambling, with its brothers and sisters, towards the beautiful shimmer of the moon reflecting off the sea. As soon as it reaches the shore, the wave scoops him up and the tiny hatchling swims away.
Unfortunately, that quiet dark beach is becoming less and less of a reality. Coastal resorts receive the highest percentage of tourists making them one of the most popular holiday types. Restaurants, bars, street lights and apartments are just a few infrastructures that can back nesting beaches and are lit throughout the night. This stops the ocean being the brightest horizon and instead of being drawn to sea, hatchlings find themselves in land.
Here they are at risk of being run over by cars, drowning in swimming pools, getting stuck down drains, dying of exhaustion and they are extremely vulnerable to predators. Reducing light pollution that can be visible from nesting beaches is vital to ensure hatchlings find their way to sea. Legislation around the world encourages people to turn beachfront lighting off, use red lights or put screens around lights so they cannot be seen from the beach.
Turtles are most vulnerable when they are hatchlings and it is not just light pollution that is their problem. In many parts of the world turtle eggs are poached for food and hatchlings are taken to be kept as pets. Turtle hatchlings are also vulnerable to predators. Pine martens, raccoons and stray dogs may dig at nests to get to the eggs and if their walk to sea wasn’t traumatic enough, they have to get past ghost crabs and gulls. The ocean is relatively safer for hatchlings once they get there but they must still avoid fish looking for a meal.
It is estimated only 1 in 1000 turtle eggs make it to sexually mature adults, however this statistic does not consider the anthropogenic impacts humans have on nesting beaches. There is lots of practical field work and research being done for turtles all over the world:
Costa Rica – Using fake turtle eggs with GPS tracking devices to find out where poachers take stolen eggs and the trafficking route to inform law enforcement.
Malaysia – Removing eggs from nests and relocating them to secure hatcheries preventing poachers from stealing eggs and ensuring hatchlings get to sea.
Greece – The majority of nesting areas in Greece have volunteers working on monitoring and protecting nests.
Florida – Ordinances require keeping lights off for turtles from June to October. County lighting laws encompass 95% of Florida’s nesting areas.
Beaches are beautiful, but they are also a vital habitat for turtles and it is imperative that we do what we can to protect them.