What to expect from an expectant turtle
Sharon Maxwell heads the organization known as the South Walton Turtle Watch. She began walking South Walton's beaches in 1993 at Grayton State Park for the Parks System. She helped form South Walton Turtle Watch in 1995. The organization consists of all volunteers who walk the county's 26 miles of beaches just after daybreak each day, searching for the “crawls” of sea turtles. These trails most often mean the female turtle came ashore during the night and laid her eggs in a nest she dug in the sand.
The sea turtles are listed as endangered in this area, and include the Kemp’s ridley, green, loggerhead, and leatherback.
The nests are marked and watched until the eggs hatch between July and October. The gestation period for hatching in this area is a little over two months.
So far, no nests have been found, which is not unusual for this time of year, said Maxwell.
"The water temperature has to be 81 to 83 degrees before we see anything," she said. The current water temperature she believes is around 77 degrees.
The first nest is not normally found until May 15-21.
"No one has seen any crawls yet," she said. "Port St. Joe and Panama City see crawls before we do and they haven't seen any yet."
In recent years the typical nest count has been around 30 per year. Last year's count was 32. In 2000, however, there were 58, which was a high year. Maxwell doesn't think we will see that many this time around.
"We used to have 40 and above, but I don't think there are that many sea turtles any more. We are on a downward trend," she said.
However, she is hopeful.
"Leatherbacks and greens are up on the East Coast, so, hopefully our loggerheads will be too," she said.
Maxwell explains that there are loggerheads throughout the world, but the ones that come up on our beaches are a sub population that are unique to our white sandy beaches and, as a whole, are a threatened population.
"There are not that many," she said. "They are dwindling due to the changing of our beaches. There are more people on the beach at night than there used to be and a greater number of sea walls."
However, the obstacles facing the turtles start in the Gulf with things such as long-line fishing, and every year they are hit by boats, said Maxwell.
"They are trying to compete with man and hopefully man will try to be a better friend. It's not that we're bad people, we just get into what we're doing," she said.
Those “doings” include not complying with lighting ordinances, using flashlights on the beach at night, and throwing plastic bags into the Gulf.
"When people throw plastic bags into the Gulf, the turtles see them and think they are jellyfish and open their mouths," she explained.�
She also warned about leaving objects on the beach. If a turtle encounters an obstacle on land, whether human or something man-made, they will usually turn and go back into the water without laying their eggs.
"If you're on the beach and a turtle comes ashore, stand back and give her plenty of room," said Maxwell. "Don't touch her. And if any help is needed, call the Walton County Sheriff's Department."
Turtle season runs May 1 through Oct. 31