Sea turtle nesting may be coming to a close on Southwest Florida beaches but the hatching of their nests is proceeding full steam. Although not a record like last year, an above-average year of 515 nests on Keewaydin Island means that Conservancy staff and interns are busy monitoring for signs of hatching and then gauging the success afterward by excavating the nest.
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Sea turtle eggs typically incubate for 60 days after the female digs her nest but the unseasonably warm temperatures this summer seem to have sped up the process. Some nests are hatching a week or more ahead of schedule. Another effect of the warmer temperatures could be an increase in the number of female hatchlings produced this year. The sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature in the nest during the middle third of incubation. Warmer temperatures produce more females and cooler temperatures produce more males, hence sayings such as “hot chicks and cool dudes” or “hot mamas and cool daddies.”
When the buried eggs start to hatch, the young turtles do not dig their way to the surface individually. Rather, the first to hatch wait for their nestmates to also hatch and create more space in the egg chamber. The hatchlings then work as a loosely-organized team with the ones at the top scratching down the ceiling of the chamber and the ones at the bottom compacting the fallen sand to create a rising floor. The movements of hatchlings on the bottom also urge the ones at the top to keep digging upwards in their sand elevator. The little team takes a time-out as they near the surface and wait for a drop in sand temperature during the evening and into the night before boiling out of the nest.
Learn more about nest boils here.
It becomes every little turtle for themselves once they start scrambling down the beach toward the water, leaving their tiny tracks in the sand. The mass emergence of hatchlings is meant to overwhelm any potential predators such as ghost crabs. After reaching the water, the next task is to make it through the shore pound where even the smallest waves can be daunting to such a small creature. The hatchlings nonetheless continue seaward and instinctively swim to the bottom to make it past the breakers before popping their tiny heads up for a breath of air. That is usually the last we see of them as they continue their swim frenzy offshore, undertaking a long journey in the open ocean and some returning decades later as a nesting female.
Disclaimer: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. Images were acquired while conducting authorized research activities pursuant to FWC MTP-23-116.