Volunteers needed for sea turtle nesting patrols

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The Alabama Gulf Coast is expecting some special visitors in a couple of months. Every year as the days get longer and the soft sand heats up along the Gulf Coast, female loggerhead sea turtles, some weighing as much as 400 pounds, pull themselves from their watery habitat onto our sandy beaches to lay their nests. When complete she will use her large front flippers to scatter sand around to hide her work then make her way back to the gulf. Sea turtles do not sit at the nest. The nesting season starts May 1 and volunteers are needed to patrol the beaches at sunup to locate the nests laid the night before.

The Alabama Coastal Foundation works to improve and protect Alabama’s coastal environment through cooperation, education and participation. Its Share the Beach program, Alabama’s sea turtle conservation project, has been working for more than 16 years to protect the nests and nesting habitat. They help mitigate the effects of human development such as lights on Alabama’s beaches. Sea turtle nesting season starts May 1 and most nests are laid by the end of August, but the hatching will continue until the end of October.

Training for new and returning volunteers will start Thursday April 4, 6 p.m. at the Erie Meyer Civic Center in Gulf Shores and at the Shelby Auditorium on Dauphin Island. You must be at least 18 years old to volunteer but adults with younger children may volunteer and bring the children, working together. The meeting should last about an hour and a half. There is a $10 volunteer fee for new and returning volunteers as well as a volunteer form to fill out online. Testing and field training take place later in April, dates to be announced.

The story of our nesting sea turtles is very interesting. For about two hours in the middle of the night the mama turtles will expose themselves to the dangers of the open beach: foxes, coyotes, dogs, large holes, a gauntlet of canopies, furniture and condo lights. Not to mention the hazards of people trying to take selfies with the turtle or ride it, which is illegal. Any disturbing or harassing of a sea turtle or a sea turtle nest on the beach is a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act and could lead to a $100,000 fine and or a year in jail. Fortunately, most of our turtles nest without incident.

If all goes well for the mama sea turtle, she will stay on the beach long enough to dig a 20-inch deep nest using only her back flippers, then deposit on average about 110 eggs, cover them up well and make her way back to the sea. Some turtles may lay as many as five nests in a season. The beach they choose for this process is special; it is the beach where they began their journey as a hatchling many years ago. It is her natal beach. Trained volunteers with the program, dressed in bright green uniform T-shirts, patrol the beaches at sunrise looking for the signs that a mama loggerhead sea turtle has nested in the night. Nests are marked and monitored through hatching, usually about 65 days, to make sure all the hatchlings make it safely to the water.

Baby sea turtles are attracted to light. Loggerhead hatchlings are particularly susceptible to artificial lighting, primarily white lights along the beach front. These lights from condos, parking decks and lots, homes and streets pose a threat by attracting the young turtles, leading them away from water and to their eventual death. That is the reason we encourage property owners, management companies and condos to turn off any non-turtle friendly lights that shine out on the beach at night during nesting season. We strongly encourage converting all beachside light fixtures to ones that are turtle friendly with red or dark amber bulbs. Gone are days when beach houses had flood lights shining out on the beach; we now know that is bad for sea turtles, shore birds and beach mice. To help mitigate the problems with lights, Share the Beach volunteers monitor the nests closely and watch for signs of hatching. The hatchlings are closely watched and counted as they leave the nest. Starting last year, hatchlings that venture off the wrong way toward lights are allowed to continue for a short distance before being collected and released near the water. The offending light source is documented and reported to USF&W law enforcement.

The City of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are continuing with their beach cleaning program, called Leave Only Footprints. It is a bold plan aimed at cleaning up our beaches. Both of the cities enacted ordinances which require all beach goers to take with them at the end of the day any trash and their chairs and umbrellas, leaving only footprints. This will also help eliminate many of the obstacles that nesting turtles encounter on the beach at night.

Volunteers with the program are taught how to identify the signs of nesting and how to document the nest site, but most of the work involves walking the beach in the early morning. The trained volunteers, working under the direction of endangered species permit holder Mike Reynolds, patrol about a mile of beach, usually one or two days a week looking for new nests. Later in the season when the hatching starts, the volunteers take shifts at the nests watching for the baby turtles emerging from under the sand. They are there to make sure the hatchlings make it safely to the water.

Remember: There will be a volunteer meeting in Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island held Thursday, April 4 at 6 p.m. at the Gulf Shores Civic Center and at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Shelby Center (101 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island). If you are 18 and want to volunteer please be at the meeting if possible, important information will be shared and you will be assigned to a team. There is a $10 volunteer fee, and you must fill out the volunteer form. The sea turtle training manual is mandatory reading and can be found on our website under training. Returning volunteers are welcomed and encouraged to come but, if you can’t make it please let your team leader know that you plan to return and fill out a volunteer form online.

For more information about sea turtles and Share the Beach visit our website www.ShareTheBeach.com or call 866-732-8878. You can also follow us on Twitter @ShareTheBeach or like us on Facebook, Share the Beach. Additionally, you can Connect to Your Coast with the Alabama Coastal Foundation at www.joinACF.org or on social media @alabamacoastal

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