Swimming with Sea Turtles

Swimming with sea turtles is usually one of the fondest experiences scuba divers are lucky enough to have. You’ve heard me tell you before that scuba diving in West Palm Beach is one of the greatest places to go if you want to have the best sea turtle encounters, so let me elaborate a little more and share with you the story and photographs from today’s special trip to help make you a believer.

We are very fortunate in West Palm Beach, Florida to have five of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide. From the world’s smallest and most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley, to the largest sea turtle in the world, the leatherback — we have an incredible diversity of sea turtles that call West Palm Beach, Florida home. Unfortunately, all sea turtles are under the threat of extinction and so are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Leatherback sea turtle

Leatherback sea turtle

The months of March through October are “officially” sea turtle mating/nesting season — although we encounter sea turtles year-round on our reefs and wrecks in West Palm Beach, Florida. Leatherback sea turtles are the first to nest on our beaches during the beginning of the sea turtle nesting season. These leviathans have reached a recorded maximum length of 10ft and over 2000lbs. Even leatherback hatchlings are born at up to three times the size of the other sea turtle hatchlings.

Loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle

A few months after the leatherbacks have begun to nest in Florida, the loggerheads begin to nest on our beaches. While not as large as leatherback, they can tip the scale at over 300lbs and almost 4ft. in length. Our diverse variety of mollusks and crustaceans (yes, even those tasty lobsters) on our coral reefs are a welcome meal for these sea turtles. Their powerful jaws are capable of shattering a conch shell into pieces.

The beaches of West Palm Beach, Florida are a very important nesting sight for these loggerhead sea turtles. In fact, Florida is considered the second largest loggerhead sea turtle nesting site in the world. Loggerhead sea turtle nesting numbers fluctuate from one year to the next (some like to take a year off and enjoy a nice vacation in the Caribbean we like to think), but in 2012 almost 60,000 loggerhead sea turtle nests were counted in Florida! These numbers are based on specific indexed beaches alone and the numbers do not account for many other beaches where the loggerhead nests are not included in these records.

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle

The last to nest during sea turtle nesting season in West Palm Beach is the green sea turtle. The largest green sea turtle ever recorded was 5ft. in length and weighed 871lbs. These beautiful sea turtles are passionate about their nest — often digging numerous body pits and moving as far up into the dunes as possible before laying their clutch of over 100 sea turtles eggs (on average).

Hawksbill sea turtle

Hawksbill sea turtle

Two other species live on the reefs of West Palm Beach, Florida but seldom nest. The hawksbill sea turtles are often seen during many of our dives and are year-round residents. These extremely friendly sea turtles don’t seem to be concerned about bubble-making divers approaching closely and will go about their business searching for some delicious sponge to eat. Based on the study done by our resident scientist and diver, Dr. Larry Wood of The Comprehensive Florida Hawksbill Research and Conservation Program, most of the hawksbill sea turtles we encounter in West Palm Beach, Florida are in their teens.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle rounds out the last of the sea turtles found in West Palm Beach, Florida. These critically endangered sea turtle have just recently been sighted more frequently on our reefs in West Palm Beach. This year Florida has been fortunate to have a handful of Kemp’s Ridley nest on the beach. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (where the majority of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles live) had a devastating impact on their population — killing over 500 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles in 2010 alone. These numbers are a terrible loss for this already critically endangered sea turtle. Hopefully these first few nests in Florida will continue as an increasing trend in the following years.

So why do I share with you all this information about sea turtles? I think knowing a little about our sea turtles is necessary in order to truly appreciate today’s story.

Sea turtles have a special magic that makes you fall in love with them shortly after your first encounter. Wanting to help the plight of these wonderful sea creatures landed me as a volunteer with the Sea Turtle Conservation League of Singer Island. My work with this great group of volunteers involves marking new sea turtles nests on a section of Singer Island, keeping record of important nesting data, and educating the public. All this is done under a special marine sea turtle permit from the state of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (please read an important disclaimer at the bottom of this post).

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings on the beach

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings on the beach

While doing our daily sea turtle surveys we came across a few disoriented leatherback sea turtle hatchlings as well as a few that had reached the top of the nest before becoming inactive during the midmorning sun. These leatherback sea turtle hatchlings would certainly die under the hot Florida sun if left to their own accord. With the sun so high on the horizon, their chances of evading the nearshore predators was also pretty slim if we let them swim off the beach, so under the care of a couple of permitted sea turtle personnel, these tiny leatherback sea turtles were escorted via a private charter out into the Gulf Stream.

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling

Getting in the water for a few minute to watch these tiny turtles on their first venture into the ocean was a very special treat, and knowing that we were giving them a little helping hand made it all the more special. Perhaps in a couple of decades these same sea turtles will grace us with their presence during our dives in West Palm Beach and will continue their important work of preserving their population.

As divers we are fortunate to experience a part of the planet that few get a chance to see. Our encounters with marine life turns us into passionate ambassadors for the preservation of our oceans. Swimming with sea turtles and looking into those beautiful blue eyes touches our saltwater-logged hearts like few other marine sea creature. I hope that you will share the information you’ve learned from today’s blog and appreciate how very fortunate we all are to see these wonderful sea turtles on the reefs of West Palm Beach, Florida.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:

Sea turtles are either endangered or threatened (the loggerhead is the only species that has a population high enough to be only threatened in Florida). They are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 and the Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act (379.2431, Florida Statutes).

Florida Statutes (F.A.C. Rule 68E-1) restrict the take, possession, disturbance, mutilation, destruction, selling, transference, molestation, and harassment of marine turtles, nests or eggs.  Protection is also afforded to marine turtle habitat.  A specific authorization from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff is required to conduct scientific, conservation, or educational activities that directly involve marine turtles in or collected from Florida, their nests, hatchlings or parts thereof, regardless of applicant’s possession of any federal permit.

The handling of these endangered sea turtle hatchlings was done under a Florida state permit provided to the Sea Turtle Conservation League of Singer Island. Under NO circumstances should you ever disturb a sea turtle. Severe penalties including jail time can be imposed.


4 comments on “Swimming with Sea Turtles
  1. John Karuza says:

    Living in Florida and dive we often forget how lucky we are. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Wanda says:

    What is the best month to see the sea turtles?

    • Laz says:

      Hi Wanda,
      We have resident sea turtles on our reefs all year long. Sea turtle nesting season in the area officially starts on March 1st and ends on October 31st.

      The most abundant sea turtles in our area are the loggerheads. Starting around May through October we can almost guarantee you will see a turtle.. or 53 (our record on one dive)! :)

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