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Hatching an Idea

Volunteers work to educate beach visitors about the needs
of Alabama's sea turtles.

The odds are stacked against baby sea turtles from the beginning. These hard-luck kids of the beach face natural predators, human interference, and loss of habitat. Then, if they make it out of their nest, the path to water is no Sunday afternoon stroll. Yes, if anything needs a champion, it's a baby sea turtle.

turtles

In Title: People aren't the only creatures drawn to Alabama's beaches, This year, nearly 220 turtle nests have been counted. Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism

Above/below: Baby sea turtles work to make their way to the warm Gulf waters. Chandra Wright

turtles

Enter nature tourism specialist Chandra Wright. She is with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. Wright also volunteers for Share the Beach, Alabama's sea turtle conservation program that focuses on helping the turtles to hatch and get to the water, while also educating the public on ways to respect the nesting areas.

Sweet home Alabama

Humans aren't the only creatures to recognize the strip of beach from Fort Morgan to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, plus Dauphin Island, as an ideal getaway. Each year, sea turtles return to this area of the Gulf Coast to lay eggs on the beaches where they were hatched. Currently, there are nearly 220 turtle nests in Alabama, Wright said.

Turtle eggs incubate from 55 to 75 days. Share the Beach volunteers monitor the nests by listening to the eggs with a stethoscope and placing screens over the nests to keep predators, like foxes and coyotes, out. Wright said volunteers often stay through the night in two-hour shifts if active sounds come from a nest.

But if there's no sign of turtles after 75 days, the nest can be excavated using U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocol. More than 100 eggs can be dug out of a loggerhead's nest, Wright said.

Last year, 8,000 sea turtles hatched along this strip of beach between July and October, according to Share the Beach statistics.

That's an amazing number, considering what the turtles have to deal with on the beaches. The biggest problem for the turtles is all the artificial light due to increasing beach development. Miles of condos and beach houses are great for humans, but not for turtles. The white lights disorient the little turtles, as well as the nesting females.

Even making it to the water doesn't guarantee a turtle's survival, Wright said.

"Once in the water, they have a lot of challenges, such as shark predators," she said.

Lend a hand for a flipper

To help the turtles on their journey, Wright said Share the Beach asks beach guests to dim the window lighting and turn off deck lights. The hatchlings crawl to the light, thinking they are going toward the water. When they wander, they often perish.

If a nest is near a condo, Share the Beach folks talk to management companies to inform them of the turtle presence and ask for cooperation with the lights. Sometimes, volunteers go door-to-door with information on behalf of the turtles.

From May 1 to Aug. 31, volunteers each morning at sunrise comb the beach for turtle tracks left by mamas who may have nested during the night. They also direct traffic at the nests, creating a pathway in the sand that leads to the water, keeping the babies from straying off course.

Companies that rent the beach chairs and umbrellas could also help by keeping the items at the dune line and not close to the water.

But new city ordinances in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach require the removal of all personal property from the beach one hour after sunset, or it will be removed and recycled by authorized personnel. Such items include chairs, tents, umbrellas, toys, and coolers. The initiative is known as "Leave Only Footprints."

Wright acknowledges it's a lot to monitor.

"I don't think I'll ever run out of things to do," she said.

But we should remember that the turtles have been vacationing at the Gulf Coast long before we were. By adopting a few easy steps, we can successfully share the beautiful beach with them.

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.

September/October 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information about the Share the Beach program, visit www.alabamaseaturtles.com

Information about the Leave Only Footprints initiative is available at www.cleanisland.org.

Visit the nature center at Gulf State Park to learn more about animals native to the Gulf Coast area.

To visit Alabama's Gulf Coast, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Alabama through the Free Travel Information page, found online.


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