I live in urban Fort Lauderdale and thus I am always amazed and thrilled that some 3,000 huge sea turtles still lumber onto Broward County beaches at night to lay eggs.
It seems so primordial.
And yet, every summer our beach is decorated with neon-colored tape and signs to show where these ancient creatures have buried their eggs. Florida beaches are the No. 1 place for sea turtle nests in North America from May to October.
Up and down the Atlantic coast (where sea turtle nests are most common), parks and environmental groups organize night-time sea turtle walks in June and July to observe the natural wonder.
Getting a chance to see a sea turtle in action takes some doing, but it’s a memorable experience. Visitors are led to a spot on the beach where a sea turtle is digging a hole a foot or two deep with her hind flippers. The turtle then starts filling the nest with soft-shelled eggs the size of ping-pong balls. After laying, she re-fills the nest with sand and heads back into the ocean. The whole process takes 30 to 60 minutes.
The most common variety of sea turtle here is the loggerhead, with leatherbacks and green turtles being much rarer. Loggerheads average 200 to 250 pound. Greens can way up to 500 pounds. Leatherbacks can get up to 1500 pounds. Wildlife-protection regulations limit turtle walks to observing only loggerheads.
Nearly all sea-turtle walks require reservations. Some get booked for the season on the day they take reservations, and some don’t take reservations until specific dates. Several of the best sea-turtle walk locations are away from urban centers, so a turtle walk might make a good anchor to a weekend getaway or vacation trip.
To see a nesting turtle, you need to go with a group: Turtle-walk guides know the federal and state laws about what you can and cannot do regarding these threatened or endangered species. (For example: No flashlights except for guides, who need permits, and no flash photography.)
In most cases, you’ll be with a group of 20 or 40 people. All sea-turtle walk programs are required to begin with an information session or talk. During that time, most programs send out “scouts” to find nesting sea turtles for the group to observe.
In most places, participants have to be able to walk a mile or two on sand, and many sea-turtle walks discourage children under 8 or anyone with limited mobility. Wear dark clothing, bring insect repellent and a water bottle. And bring patience: One night I went on a sea-turtle walk, we waited several hours before a turtle was spotted, and for awhile, it looked like we weren’t going to get lucky. No matter where you go, there’s no guarantee you’ll see a sea turtle.
There are some beaches where the odds are better than others. The place with most turtle nests per mile? Based on the 2016 season, Palm Beach County beaches had 457 loggerhead nests per mile. Turtle Walks in Palm Beach County are held at Gumbo Limbo, MacArthur State Park and Loggerhead Marine Life Center.
The odds are also good in Martin County, which had 351 loggerhead nests per mile. Brevard County is home to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which was specifically created to protect sea turtle nests, and it had 287 nests per mile in 2016. Urban Broward County, by comparison, had 88 nests per mile last year — still, that added up to 3,400 nests! (These figures are for monitored beaches, not the total shoreline.) See nesting data here.
Naturalists tell us there’s no way to predict which night will be good for turtle nests — there is no relationship between sea turtle nesting activity and the phase of the moon, the weather, or the tides.
All of these walks fill up quickly and some cost as much as $20 per person. There is one program that is free — FPL.
Here’s a report on my experiences at a turtle walk at Loggerhead Marinelife Center. (We went on a night when there were so many turtles nesting we couldn’t leave the beach until a few cleared the area.)
There are sea turtle walks up and down the Florida Atlantic coast. Information has been updated for 2017 unless you see a 2016 date in bold (and we’re working on getting the information for those, so check back.)
Dr. Von D. Mitzell-Eula Johnson State Park
- 6503 N. Ocean Dr., Dania Beach, 954-923-2833
- At 9 p.m. every Wednesday & Friday in June and July 2017
The state park charges no additional fee beyond park entrance, which is $4 for a single car occupant and $6 for two to eight in a car. Reservations are required. Participants meet at a pavilion for a 20-minute ranger talk and Q&A. During the program, a scout looks for a nesting sea turtle to be observed. About half of the 2016 walks succeeded in seeing nesting turtles. There were about 290 nests in the park in 2016. Reservations may be made by calling (954) 924-3859 Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m..
Museum of Discovery and Science
- 401 SW 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale.
- Call 954-713- 0930 to make reservations.
- Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays 9 p.m. – 1 a.m. June 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28 & 29, 2017
July 11, 12 & 13, 2017
- $22 for non-members
This walk begins at the museum with a talk about turtles, including a chance to meet the museum’s young ambassador loggerhead sea turtle. Then guests use their own transportation to meet at the beach. Advance reservations are required. See details on MODS events page.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
- 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton FL 33432., 561-544-8605
- The 2017 schedule: Thursday nights, May 18, 25; and every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night from June 6-July 13, 2017 (no program July 4).
- $17 per person.
Doors open at 8:30 and the program will start promptly at 8:45 p..m. The program ends after one loggerhead is seen (not guaranteed), or at midnight, whichever occurs first. There is a limit of six tickets per person. The 2017 walks can be reserved online here. Tickets to the general public begin at 9 a.m. May 8. See more information on the Gumbo Limbo website.
Gumbo Limbo also offers another opportunity to see sea turtles — and for this program, you are guaranteed to see sea turtles! Gumbo Limbo brings visitors to watch tiny sea turtle hatchlings scramble into the surf as they are released to make it on their own in the ocean. The 90-minute program, which is open to even the youngest kids, begins in the Gumbo Limbo classroom and ends on the beach.
- Sea turtle hatchling releases are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights (no program Sept. 4): July 17-Aug. 10, 8–9:30 p.m. Aug. 14-Sept. 7, 7:30–9 p.m.
- General ticket sales begin June 13 online.
- See more information on the Gumbo Limbo website
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
- 10900 State Road 703 (A1A), North Palm Beach, Florida 33408, 561-624-6952
- 2017 schedule: Walks are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights June 5 to July 14 except June 23 and July 3.
- Cost is $10 per person.
MacArthur has one of the highest concentrations of turtle nests in the area, and only a handful of walks go without seeing a turtle most years.
Registration will be online through www.macarthurbeach.org. Price is $12 per ticket, non-refundable unless the event is cancelled by park staff. Registration launches at 9 a.m. May 30. For information call the nature center at 561-624-6952 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. or at the friend of the park’s website.
Tours go rain or shine and cancel only for active lightning storms.
Loggerhead Marinelife Center
- 14200 U.S. Hwy. 1, Loggerhead Park, Juno Beach 33408
- 8:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday evenings in June and July, 2017
- Tickets are $17 each. (Walk-ins are $20, and a spot is not guaranteed. )
- Walks begin at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center and can last until midnight. Registration starts May 1 and can be made online.
In 2014, I joined a walk at Loggerhead Marine Center; here’s my report. Loggerhead is a good place to take a turtle walk because before it starts you get to view the many tanks of turtles in rehabilitation. No one goes home, then, without seeing a sea turtle, even if it is in captivity.
Barrier Island Sanctuary
- 8385 S Hwy A1A, Melbourne Beach, FL 32951, 321-723-3556
- 9 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights in June and July 2017.
- $15 per person. Reservations are made starting May 1. See their website.
These walks are through the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the largest nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. It has more endangered green sea turtles nests than any other place in North America, plus the world’s largest sea turtle, the endangered leatherback, nests here too. Regulations, however, limit turtle walks to observing only the nesting of the more common loggerhead turtle.
Sea Turtle Preservation Society
- Melbourne Beach and Satellite Beach
- Reservations are made online.
- $16 minimum donation per person.
This private group holds turtle walks in Melbourne Beach or Satellite Beach from May 24 to July 24, 2017. Choose a location when you reserve online. Children under 7 are discouraged and participants must be able to walk a mile on soft sand. Call 321-676-1701 for more information or visit www.seaturtlespacecoast.org.
Florida Power & Light (all walks are full for 2017)
- 6501 South Ocean Drive, Highway A1A, Gate B, Jensen Beach, FL 34957
- St. Lucie nuclear power plant at the Energy Encounter, Hutchinson Island, 1-888-646-6396.
- 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights in June and July 2017
These walks are free and fill up immediately. All walks are now full. Next year, if you want a FREE turtle walk, make your call to reserve on May 1. Here’s more information. To reserve, call 1-888-646-6396.
Hobe Sound Nature Center
- 13640 S.E. Federal Highway (U.S. 1), Hobe Sound, Florida 33455, 772-546-2067
- Walks will be held on Thursdays and Fridays from May 25 to July 2, 2017
- Call (727) 546-2067 or make a reservation here.
- $5 per person and donation requested.
Reservations started being taken in early April, but there are still openings. Walks go rain or shine. More info: Hobe Sound Nature Center website.
Sebastian Inlet State Park, Fishing Museum
- 9700 South A1A, Melbourne Beach, FL 32951, 772-388-2750
- 2017 schedule: Every night but Wednesdays and Thursdays in June and July 2017
- $10 donation
- No groups.
Reservations for the month of June will be taken on May 1, 2017. Reservations for the month of July will be taken on June 1, 2017. Reserve online at friendsofsebastianinletstatepark.org. Programs are conducted by state park rangers.
Canaveral National Seashore
- Walks will be conducted Wednesday through Saturday in June and July 2017.
- Walks take place in both the southern Playalinda district and the northern Apollo district. Participants meet at 8 p.m. at either the Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve, 1987 Scrub Jay Way, Titustville; or the Apollo Beach Visitor Center, 7611 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna Beach.
- Reservations start on May 15 for June walks and on June 15 for July walks.
- $14 per person; children 15 and under are free. No children under age 8. Those with National Park Services passes for seniors or the disabled pay half price.
The park, the longest undeveloped stretch of beach on Florida’s east coast, takes reservation by phone — 386-428-3384, ext. 0. Canaveral National Seashore website.
Turtles along Florida’s Gulf Coast
Turtles do nest along the Gulf Coast, but not as densely. In 2016, there were 129,153 turtle nests along the Gulf and Panhandle on 840 miles of monitored beach. On the East Coast, there were slightly fewer nests — 110,449 — but there are only 409 miles of monitored beach.
As a result, turtle walks are rare along the Gulf Coast. In Sarasota County, which has the most nests along the Gulf, there’s a different type of turtle walk. Trained volunteers with Mote Marine Laboratory lead groups that scout the beaches for signs of overnight nests starting at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday and Sundays. The walks are educational and free. You can learn more here.
See sea turtles every day
Several of the groups offering sea turtle walks have turtles in their care on exhibit — Gumbo Limbo in Boca Raton, Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. Here’s a list of places where you can see captive sea turtles.
You can get close to an endangered species any day of the year with a tour of a non-profit turtle rehabilitation center in the Florida Keys. Read more from Florida Rambler about the Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon.