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It is incredible to see wild Florida sea turtles weighing hundreds of pounds lumbering out of the waters and onto the beaches to lay eggs.
Florida is home to more than 100,000 endangered and threatened sea turtle species. Visitors are often astonished to learn that about 90% of sea turtle nesting in the US occurs in Florida during the summer months. While seeing Florida sea turtles nesting requires a bit of planning, those who’ve done it say it’s an unforgettable experience.
Especially along the Atlantic Cos, where environmental groups arrange nighttime sea turtle walks, you can see nesting sea turtles. On a typical turtle tour, visitors are guided to spots on the beaches where sea turtles dig a foot or two deep holes with their hind flippers.
Turtles then start filling their nests with their tennis ball-sized soft-shelled eggs. After laying eggs and refilling the nest with sand, they head back into the ocean. This whole process can take up to an hour or so.
This article will discuss everything you want to know about sea turtles in Florida, including Florida turtle species, turtle season Florida, and swimming with sea turtles in Florida.
Florida Sea Turtles
Remember that Florida sea turtles aren’t just one species. According to environmental groups, there are about seven species of sea turtles worldwide, or six, depending on who you ask.
There’s a scientific dispute about whether to include the seventh specie in the sea turtle classification. This is because six out of seven sea turtle species belong to the Cheloniidae family because they all have plated shells that look relatively similar.
However, the seventh species of sea turtle fall into the Dermochelyidae family. Sea turtles of this family have a single-piece shell. They are easy to identify since they look different from others.
That highly argued seventh sea turtle species is one of Florida sea turtles called leatherback. It is also worth noting that five out of seven sea turtle species can be found in Florida. These species include green turtle, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, and Leatherback. While leatherback is one of the most distinctive, each species has unique characteristics.
Turtle Season in Florida
Before we discuss the species of Florida sea turtles, it is essential to know about turtle season Florida. If you’re interested in Florida marine life, remember that the Florida turtle season runs from March to October. During these months, Florida peninsula waters are at their warmest.
Similarly, the best months of the year are June to August for those planning to visit Southwest Florida and want to see a turtle nesting.
Turtle Nesting and Hatching Season in Florida
When thinking about giant migrating turtles, you might think about Costa Rica, the Caribbean, or Pacific places. However, note that turtle season Florida running from March through October, hosts up to 84,000 nesting on the Florida beaches. It also means that up to 90% of US sea turtle nesting occurs in Florida.
Now, let’s discuss each of the Florida sea turtles species in detail:
Florida Sea Turtle Species
1. Loggerhead Sea Turtle
|Habitat||Open Ocean, Estuaries||Length||Up to 45 Inches|
|Weight||Up to 350 Pounds||Life Expectancy||50 Years or More (Approx.)|
|Food||Sponges, Jellyfish, Sea Urchins, Shrimp, etc.||Status||
Federally and State Threatened
Loggerhead is one of the most common sea turtles in Florida. Known for their enormous block-like head, adult loggerhead turtles weigh 275 pounds on average and have a shell about one-yard long. The shell is broad and has ruddy brown color on top and creamy yellow underneath, tapering toward the rear. While each flipper has two claws, adult male loggerheads have longer tails than female loggerheads.
These turtles use their robust jaws to crush and eat crabs, clams, and other wild creatures. Their diet mainly includes crabs, jellyfish, and mollusks.
The Gulf of Mexico and sandy Atlantic beaches of Florida are famous for sea turtle nesting and host the world’s most significant loggerhead nesting aggregations. Female loggerheads head back to their nesting every two years to lay up to seven nests. Each nest can contain up to 126 eggs that nurse for 60 days.
Moreover, most loggerhead nesting in Florida occurs in five counties on the east coast, including the Indian River, Brevard, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, and Martin counties. Florida beaches in these counties feature about 20% (160 miles) of beaches where nesting activity is observed.
Loggerheads can live up to 80 or more years. They mate in coastal waters every 2 to 3 years and head back to nests in areas where they hatched decades earlier. In Florida and the rest of the northern hemisphere, mate season starts from March to June, and females lay eggs between April and September.
Moreover, these sea turtles are solitary, nigh-time nesters and prefer narrow, coarse-grained beaches for nesting. Additionally, the temperature of the sand is key to determining the sex of hatchings. While warmer temperatures raise females, cooler temperatures produce male sea turtles.
Nearshore and offshore ocean pollution are one of the most significant threats for loggerheads as they can change beach morphology while increasing sand temperatures. The results can be devastating for eggs and can change the ratio of male and female hatchings.
Moreover, storms and rising seas can cause erosion and flood or wash away nests. Like some other sea turtle species, loggerheads are collected illegally for their meat and eggs in some countries. Other threats that loggerheads face include vessel strikes, climate change, and unintended capture in fishing gear.
2. Green Sea Turtle
|Habitat||Oceans||Length||Up to 47 Inches|
|Weight||Up to 400 Pounds||Life Expectancy||70 Years or More (Approx.)|
|Food||Seagrasses, sponges, discarded fish, and invertebrates||Status||Federally Endangered|
Green sea turtles are marine-dwelling and can hit a length of 3.2 feet. The average weight of green turtles can be up to 400 pounds. The name can be confusing since the carapace (top of their shell) is not green. However, their body fat is green.
You can quickly identify these turtles by looking at their black carapace and white plastron (lower shell). Additionally, green turtles are unique, unlike other sea turtle species, as they have one pair of elongated prefrontal scales and four pairs of coastal scutes.
Because of their green body fat, these turtles are known as the green turtle. Unlike bulky loggerheads, they also have a more streamlined look and a small head. The upper shell is oval-shaped and has an olive-brown color with dark streaks running through it.
Moreover, green turtles can easily be found in temperate and subtropical oceans. The western Atlantic hosts one of Florida’s most significant groupings of green turtle nests.
Unlike other sea turtle species, green turtles follow a vegetarian diet of algae and seagrass. They head offshore to mate with females during their breeding season, from late spring to early summer. While nesting season can vary depending on geographical areas, their nesting season in Florida starts between June and September.
It is worth noting that green sea turtles are an endangered sea turtle specie because they face many threats both in the water and on land. One of the significant threats to these turtles in the water is the risk of entanglement in fishing equipment like nets, longlines, and crab trap lines. In addition, green turtles are also harvested illegally for their eggs and meat.
Moreover, beach development is another biggest threat for sea turtles as it can cause degradation while reducing the nesting sites. Other hazards include watercraft hits, increased egg predation, and habitat degradation.
3. Hawksbill Sea Turtle
|Habitat||Tropical Oceans, Coral Reefs||Length||Up to 45 Inches|
|Weight||Up to 150 Pounds||Life Expectancy||60 Years or Less (Approx.)|
|Food||Sponges, jellyfish, sea anemones||Status||Federally Endangered|
Hawksbill sea turtles are named for having a narrow, pointed beak. This turtle specie also has a unique arrangement of overlapping scales on its shells that create a serrated look. Because of their distinctively colored and patterned shells, hawksbills are highly valuable and sold as tortoiseshell. These turtles can be found mainly in tropical oceans and coral reefs.
Unlike other sea turtles in Florida, hawksbills aren’t particularly large. They can grow up to a 45-inch shell and weigh about 150 pounds. Young hawksbills have a heart-shaped carapace which can elongate as they mature. Their fascinatingly colored carapace has a serrated look with overlapping scutes.
Moreover, another distinctive feature of hawksbills is the pair of claws embellishing each flipper. Male hawksbills are easily identifiable as they have thicker tails, extended claws, and brighter coloring than their female companions.
Like other sea turtles in Florida, hawksbills are also solitary and meet only to mate. Females head back to nest every 2 to 3 years on the beach where they hatched earlier. Their nesting season in Florida and many other locations start between April and November.
Like loggerheads, they nest at night, laying up to six clutches (140 eggs) each season. In contrast to other sea turtle species, they prefer nesting in low densities and scattered beaches. As they grow 14-inch in length, hawksbills head back to reef habitat.
Moreover, hawksbills are omnivorous, which means they consume seagrass, small animals, sea urchins, and sponges. While hawksbills’ body fat can absorb the toxins from tiny animals and sponges, their meat is poisonous to humans. However, it still doesn’t stop the illegal harvesting of hawksbills.
It is worth mentioning that the population of hawksbills has declined up to 80% in the last few decades, mainly due to the illegal trade of their striking carapace (tortoiseshell). Other potential threats hawksbill sea turtles face are pollution, destruction of nesting sites, boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, coastal development, and dynamite fishing.
4. Kemp’s Ridley
|Habitat||Nearshore Coastal (Neritic)||Length||Up to 24 Inches|
|Weight||Up to 100 Pounds||Life Expectancy||30 Years or Less (Approx.)|
|Food||Blue crabs, sea urchins, squid, jellyfish||Status||Federally Endangered|
Kemp’s Ridley turtles are the world’s smallest turtle species. This species of sea turtles in Florida is termed after Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman from Key West, Florida, presented the species for identification. While these turtles can generally be found in the Gulf of Mexico, juveniles can also be seen in the Atlantic Ocean.
The species features a triangular-shaped head, a slightly hooked beak, and dark color hatchings on both sides. Mature Kemp’s Ridley strike a grayish-green color on the carapace and pale, yellowish coloring beneath the shell. The top can be as wide as it is long. Additionally, front flippers have one claw, while the back ones often have two claws.
Like all other Florida sea turtles, Kemp’s Ridley is also a marine reptile and comes to the surface to breathe. Female turtles are exceptional navigators as they head to the land to lay eggs and return to the area where they once hatched.
Moreover, it is also one of two sea turtle species that prefer arribada nesting. It means a large group of females gather offshore and head to the beach to nest all at once. This approach can either result from environmental elements that influence nesting or protection against predators.
Like other sea turtles in Florida, a primary threat that Kemp’s Ridley face is their unintentional capture in fishing gear that can cause injuries or drowning, leading to debilitation or even death. Moreover, since they prefer arribada nesting, an extraordinary number of egg collections for human consumption is also a significant threat, especially in United States-Mexico border areas.
Furthermore, climate change and coastal development is yet another threat that influences nesting habitat. Kemp’s Ridley’s water and land threats include vessel strikes, ocean pollution, and rising seas.
|Habitat||Tropical & Temperature Marine Waters||Length||70-90 Inches|
|Weight||550 -1500 Pounds||Life Expectancy||Unknown, but 30 Years or More (Approx.)|
|Food||Invertebrates and sea squirts||Status||Endangered|
While Kemp’s Ridley is the smallest sea turtle species, Leatherback sea turtles in Florida are the largest in the world. They are also the only turtle species lacking a hard shell and scales. Instead of having a hard shell, Leatherback sea turtles feature tough, rubbery skin.
Moreover, this turtle specie has an extremely migratory habit since they can swim up to 10,000 miles a year between foraging grounds and nesting. Another interesting fact about these sea turtles is that they are incredibly accomplished divers, having a deepest recorded dive of 4,000 feet.
In addition to having the broadest global distribution than any other reptile, they nest mainly on tropical and subtropical beaches. They have a wide global distribution, though, but the population of leatherbacks has declined seriously, primarily because of bycatch and egg collection.
Since leatherbacks are incredibly migratory, they embark on the longest migrations between breeding and feeding. Like other sea turtle species, they also spend most of their lives in the oceans, though females leave the water to lay eggs.
Moreover, unlike other sea turtle species, they cannot crush, chew, and eat hard-body preys. Instead, Leatherbacks are equipped with pointed tooth-like cusps and sharp jaws that help them diet on soft-bodied prey like salps and jellyfish.
Like any other sea turtle species, Loggerheads face various land and water threats. However, ocean pollution and climate change are the most significant threats that decline the Loggerhead population. Increasing pollution near and offshore marine habitats threatens and degrades their natural habitat.
In addition to pollution, warming climates also change the morphology of beaches and increase sand temperatures which are lethal to eggs and can alter the male and female turtle ratio.
6. Olive Ridley
|Habitat||Open Ocean||Length||Up to 24 Inches|
|Weight||80-110 Pounds||Life Expectancy||50 Years (Approx.)|
|Food||Plant and Animals, including Algae, lobster, fish, shrimp||Status||Vulnerable|
The name of the olive ridley sea turtle is tied to the green color of its heart-shaped shell. Like leatherback sea turtles, the species are also among the smallest sea turtles and can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. While the species are closely related to Kemp’s Ridley, their primary distinction is they prefer warmer waters.
These sea turtles can weigh up to 100 pounds with up to 2 feet of the shell. They also have a smaller head and shell than Kemp’s Ridley. They can have up to 9 pairs of scutes and four flippers, each with one or two claws. However, the form and size of these sea turtles may vary from region to region.
Like all other sea turtles, olive ridley species are marine reptiles and come to the surface to breathe. Additionally, just like Kemp’s Ridley, they prefer arribada nesting, meaning they nest in mass numbers and synchrony.
Moreover, olive Ridley migrates longer distances between feeding and breeding. Scientists have recorded them leaving off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and migrating to the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, the species are omnivores, meaning they feed on various foods, including lobsters, algae, tunicates, crabs, and mollusks.
Like any other marine reptile species, the primary threat olive ridley faces is their unintended capture in fishing gear, causing injury or drowning. In addition, the illegal harvesting of eggs and turtles is another significant threat. However, some regions have diminished this threat by imposing a ban on collecting eggs and turtles.
Other threats that olive ridley face includes consumption or destruction of eggs by non-native predators, vessel strikes, climate change, ocean pollution, and degradation and loss of nesting habitat.
|Habitat||Shallow Waters||Length||31-37 Inches|
|Weight||Up to 220 Pounds||Life Expectancy||50 Years or Less (Approx.)|
|Food||Soft Corals, Jellyfish, and Sea Cucumbers||Status||Data Deficient|
The flatback sea turtles are named after their flat carapace and can easily be recognized by their smooth, flat shell having upturned edges along the sides. The color of the carapace can be a mixture of gray and green and matches the coloration of the flatback’s head. The underside (plastron) has a pale yellow coloration.
The flatback species can weigh up to 200 pounds, and their carapace length can range up to 2 feet. Remember that female flatback species are larger and have longer tails than male companions.
Flatback sea turtles in Florida are foraging predators, with mature ones feeding on soft-bodied prey, including sea cucumbers, jellyfish, and a variety of other invertebrates. While they often stay in the water, females emerge from the water and to the shore to lay eggs.
Flatbacks also have the smallest geographic range, meaning they cannot undertake longer, open ocean migrations. After mating, female turtles visit sandy beaches multiple times during their nesting season.
The biggest threat flatbacks face in the water is underwater predators that can reduce the population drastically. It includes saltwater crocodiles, large bony fishes, and sharks. Moreover, some threats that flatback sea turtles face are accidental catching, illegal harvesting, sea pollution, and vessel strikes.
Endangered Florida Sea Turtles
While Florida is famous for its incredible marine and wildlife, most Florida sea turtle species are listed as endangered due to human activity. It includes hunting, illegal harvesting, ocean pollution, fishing practices, loss of nesting habitat, etc., making it hard for any species to survive.
Moreover, wild predators, such as raccoons, are the biggest threat, especially in southwest Florida. They look for nesting sites and eat ping-pong-sized eggs of sea turtles. Other problems, such as alligators, crows, and seabirds, also affect hatchings before they can get to the water.
Furthermore, sea turtles that cannot find their way into the waters face dehydration from the extreme daytime sun. However, those that reach the ocean also face their own issues – most will become prey to seabirds or get eaten by predatory fish.
According to stats, only 25% of hatchings can survive their first few days at sea, and even less can make it to celebrate their first birthday. In addition, only 1 in 1,000 can reach maturity, so sea turtles lay many eggs and nest more than once a year.
Swimming with Sea Turtles in Florida
If you are a fan of marine life, you would probably want to enjoy swimming with sea turtles. However, to do this, you should plan your trip during turtle season Florida. Speaking of turtle season Florida, sea turtle species are creatures of habit and often return to nest just a few feet away from where they were the previous year. It also means you can see the same Florida sea turtles hanging out yearly.
Here are the best places for enjoying swimming with sea turtles in Florida:
1. Melbourne Beach
Melbourne beach is among the most important beaches for Florida sea turtles. The place hosts many educational tours, meaning you will learn how to observe them without disturbing their nesting and natural habitat. In addition to that, joining an educational tour also let you experience sea turtles nesting on the beaches.
The best time of the year to visit Melbourne beach is during turtle season Florida (May through October). There you will see plenty of Florida sea turtle species, including loggerhead, green, and leatherback, plodding onto the beach and laying eggs in the sand.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
Spanning from Melbourne beach to Wabasso, the refuge is about 20 miles long coastline. The place is perfect for observing Florida sea turtles, especially loggerheads, during turtle season Florida than any other spot in the Western Hemisphere.
While the place is among the most productive sea turtle nesting sites for loggerhead, Archie Carr National Wildlife is also home to the green sea turtles, and both of these species have nested there in abundance for the past few years.
During the Florida turtle season, from June to September, the friends of Archie Carr invite visitors for a memorable turtle walk. By joining a turtle walk or a nighttime turtle walk, you will experience up-close encounters and can observe nesting turtles as they dispose of their eggs and head back to the ocean.
Sea Turtle Preservation Society
The Sea Turtle Preservation Society is another fantastic place to observe Florida sea turtles just north of Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and Melbourne beach. They host sea turtle walks for up-close encounters. While there is no guarantee that you’ll see turtles on the walk, the success rate is incredibly high, all thanks to the efforts of the Sea Turtle Preservation Society and Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.
Due to their efforts to preserve and protect sea turtle habitats, there are now hundreds of Florida sea turtles to observe than there were a couple of years ago.
Vero Beach is another excellent location to observe sea turtles in Florida. The place is just a few miles from south of Melbourne beach and located conveniently on the east coast. It means you can easily visit both the beaches by taking a Florida road trip.
Commonly referred to as the “treasure coast,” the coastline may not help you find any buried treasure, but it will let you see amazing Florida sea turtles.
Disney’s Vero Beach Resort
You will surely love sea turtle night walks offered by Disney’s Vero Beach resort. You will undoubtedly enjoy seeing different species of sea turtles. That’s because while participating in a presentation on sea turtles, official monitoring scouts will be looking for nests. The official scouts will then head back and drive you to the nesting sites they found minutes earlier.
Moreover, during your night turtle walk, you will be provided with night vision goggles and an earpiece to observe and listen to the expert narration. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you must stay at the resort to experience the night turtle walk, as anyone over 18 is welcome.
2. Florida Keys
Any list of best places to see sea turtles in Florida is incomplete if it doesn’t include the Florida Keys. The site is a prime spot for hosting different species of Florida sea turtles. There, you can easily find five out of seven sea turtle species.
While the Florida Keys are lovely all year round, planning a visit during turtle season Florida will help you make your stay memorable. A few places in the Florida Keys that you should explore for observing Florida sea turtles include:
Dry Tortugas National Park
Situated 70 miles west of Key West, you must rent a boat or plane to access the place. While it may seem like a hassle, the national park is among the top places to observe different species of sea turtles in Florida.
The place also features some great islands, and your plane or boat ride will let you enjoy incredible views. As the name suggests, the national park is famous for hosting a large population of turtles. Loggerhead, green turtle, and hawksbill sea turtles all nest here. And even when it’s not turtle season Florida in the Keys, you will enjoy swimming with sea turtles in the surrounding waters.
Key West Reef
Snorkeling in the Key West Reef is another great option to see Florida sea turtles. You will love snorkeling or swimming with sea turtles at Key West Reef (The Great Florida Reef). Apart from sea turtles, this coral reef is also the only living reef in the US and the 3rd largest in the world.
Mature sea turtles migrate to and from Key West Reef all year round, meaning you don’t have to wait for sea turtle season in Florida. Planning a visit to this reef while you are in the Florida Keys can be an unforgettable experience as you can bring your underwater camera to observe the underwater world.
In addition to swimming with sea turtles, coral reefs are also highly colorful as they accommodate plenty of marine species. You can also enjoy snorkeling tours or just stay at your Airbnb.
Florida sea turtles are a sight to behold
Marine life in Florida is incredible. The sunshine state is home to various species, including sea turtles. Sadly, while it hosts five out of seven sea turtle species, they are all listed as endangered or threatened due to an array of threats, including ocean pollution, coastal development, accidental entanglement in fishing equipment, and more.
However, due to a significant reduction in their population, All five Florida sea turtle species are now federally protected by the United States Endangered Species Act.
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