A popular family tradition for Alabama beach visitors is to give children a flashlight and go out on a nighttime sand crab hunt.
But this innocent search, along with other beach activities, surprises the endangered sea turtles. And with a wave of tourists returning to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, officials are keen to educate visitors so they know their actions could disrupt the turtle’s nesting schedules.
Officials at the Alabama Coastal Foundation and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism are concerned about the increase in “false explorations,” in which sea turtle activity has been interrupted by human disturbance. These incidents occur when a female turtle comes ashore to nest but is frightened – usually by people wielding bright flashlights – sending the turtle back into the water to release its eggs. The end result is fewer baby turtles.
“It’s definitely a problem,” said Sara Johnson, director of the “Share the beach” program through the Coastal Foundation, which is responsible for monitoring sea turtle nesting that occurs along Alabama beaches. “The number of crowds on the beach at night and the flashlights are a deterrent when (the female turtle) comes out of the water. She will leave because she will not feel comfortable nesting.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism officials are encouraging visitors to apply a red filter sticker to their flashlights to minimize the turtle alarm. The agency’s two reception centers offer free red stickers to affix to the flash of a mobile phone or to a flashlight.
According to spokesperson Kay Maghan, “we strongly encourage people who go to the beach at night to get these stickers and not to use bright white light to avoid making the turtles talk.”
The beaches of the Gulf of Alabama are nesting sites for three types of threatened or endangered sea turtle species: loggerheads, Kemp’s turtles, and green turtles. Turtles, according to information on the tourism agency’s website, can live up to 50 years, weigh 500 pounds and are four feet long.
To lay eggs, sea turtles make an annual pilgrimage to the same beach where they hatched. Some nests may contain more than 100 eggs.
Between 2010 and 2020, approximately 70,786 hatchlings reached Alabama beach water, according to the Coastal Foundation.
Agency statistics also showed a 13.2% drop in the number of nests along Alabama beaches as of 2019, and 57.9 fewer since 2016, when white sand like sugar was most active with nesting turtles.
The storms of last year have had an impact. According to the Coastal Foundation, hurricanes and tropical storms have caused the complete loss of 38 nests and “the flooding of many more.”
Johnson said the Coastal Foundation has no hard data to suggest that sea turtle nesting has been directly affected by the increase in tourists. But she said volunteers have noticed fewer sea turtle nests in the denser areas of the beach, particularly in Orange Beach where rows of new condos have been built in recent years.
“While the entire (Alabama Gulf Coast Beach) may not have had more false crawls, the Orange Beach section has seen an increase over previous years,” Johnson said. “These areas tend to be denser in tourists. “
Federal law protects the sea turtle from detention or harassment, and fines can be severe. Penalties for those who vandalize a protected nesting area can include jail time and fines of up to $ 50,000.
But Johnson said it can be difficult to prosecute people who knowingly disturb the animal or its nests.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t the usual evidence (that a disruption has occurred),” Johnson said. “It’s usually word of mouth. But if it’s caught on video, it’s turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “
Vandalism of nests in Gulf Shores can often involve police action. In late May 2020, Gulf Shores Police and the Alabama Coastal Foundation teamed up to investigate the vandalized nests off West Beach Boulevard in Gulf Shores.
The Alabama Coastal Foundation was hoping, at the time, to use the incidents as an educational opportunity as visitors began returning to beaches after the pandemic-related closures last April.
Sea turtles start forming their nests around May 1 and end around August 31 in Alabama. Nesting can also last until the end of October.
Volunteers monitor several areas of the Alabama coastline each year and spend time looking for new nests. If they find one, volunteers will tag them and protect nests and hatchlings from natural and human dangers.
Johnson said that during nesting season, Share the Beach will have more than 450 volunteers spread across Alabama’s 47 miles of coastline from Flora-Bama to the western end of Dauphin Island.
Meanwhile, the organization continues to distribute informational brochures to condos and rental homes in the hopes of educating visitors about turtle susceptibility and nesting.
“We encourage everyone to be respectful of wildlife in general,” Johnson said. “If you are in the general (near a turtle nest or turtle), keep your distance, whatever species you are viewing.”
- Do not use white flashlights (or flash photographs) on the beach at night during nesting season. If you absolutely must have a light, use a red LED flashlight suitable for turtles, such as a “Share the Beach” flashlight from Maglite, or pick up a red flashlight filter at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Visitor Centers.
- Turn off exterior patio lights and shield interior beach lights at night. Hatchlings of sea turtles head for the waters of the Gulf by moonlight or starlight. Building lights along the shore can confuse hatchlings, pulling them away from the water.
- Remember to bring all your beach gear and trash every night and fill in all the holes so that no turtles get trapped. City ordinances require that all items be removed from the beach no later than one hour after sunset.
- Do not disturb the tracks or the nests of sea turtles.
- If you see a sea turtle: stand back (30 feet or more), stay low and stay silent. No flashlights or flash photography. Call the Share the Beach hotline at (866) SEA-TURTLE.