By Alisha McDarris
For Hometown News
TREASURE COAST -- March 1 marks the beginning of sea turtle nesting season that lasts until October in Florida.
Over the eight month period, thousands of sea turtles will emerge from the ocean to dig a nest on the beach and lay their eggs. In June tiny hatchlings will begin to make their way to the ocean.
Most Floridians are familiar with the triangle stakes scattered along beaches marking nests, but many don't realize that only a small percentage of them are marked and the primary reason isn't always for protection, but tracking population growth.
Ecological Associates of Jensen Beach is responsible for some of the turtle monitoring and marking along portions of Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties, but there are many agencies that cover the miles of beaches along the Treasure Coast.
EAI just found the first nest of the season on Jupiter Island on Feb. 20.
"We're excited about that," said Niki Desjardin, project manager at EAI.
But the fact is that sea turtles are endangered and threatened species and now that their nesting season has begun, there is much beachgoers can do to help protect the beloved creatures.
The Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart offers education and public outreach to the community, giving people a chance to learn, see turtles up close, and understand how to keep them safe.
"Our mission is to inspire environmental stewardship," said Michelle Byriel, education and exhibit specialist at FOS who leads the guided turtle walks in the summer that give individuals a chance to watch the nesting process.
"They're very important to our whole ecosystem and the environment that we live in," Ms. Byriel said.
That's why it's so important for anyone visiting the beach or living on or near it to be cautious and conscientious.
Ms. Byriel warns people not to leave trash and debris on the beach, including fishing line and plastic bags that can be especially dangerous for turtles, fill in any holes children might dig, and level any sand sculptures before they leave for the day.
It's also impermissible for anyone to conduct their own turtle walks. Curious intruders can easily frighten a turtle and deter it from nesting. FOS has a permit to conduct its walks.
Many counties, including Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River, have ordinances limiting or prohibiting lights on the beach during nesting season, including porch lights on homes on or near the beach. Lamps, flashlights and camera flashes can all disorient nesting turtles.
"There's a lot for the public to be aware of when they're out on the beach," Ms. Desjardin said. She advised visitors to keep dogs from digging on the beach and not disturb the trails sea turtles leave behind that mark where their nests are and allow organizations like EAI to collect their data.
As nesting season begins, conservation organizations and the general public can work together to protect the leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles that use local beaches to lay their eggs.