Sea Turtles Dig The Dark

By Natalie Hummel

On a hot July evening, I observed an adult loggerhead rise from the jet black ocean, with only the full moon to guide her. After 15-20 years at sea, she journeyed back to the beach where she hatched to lay her own eggs. It’s a memory that moved me in many ways.

I knew very little about sea turtles before this trip with the Ocean Conservancy. We landed on Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge—– a 20 mile barrier island, comprised of undisturbed beaches, expensive high rise condos, and bustling strip malls. Although a playground for surfers, sunbathers, and fishermen the refuge becomes a quiet nesting ground for thousands of sea turtles. Archie Carr is considered the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America and the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtles nesting in the Western Hemisphere.

The beach became a hands on learning environment, where visitors learn of sea turtle ancestry, biology, and how environmental factors such as climate change, loss of habitat and fishing negatively impact survival rates. The dedicated staff comprised of volunteers, graduate students, and NGOs provide visitors opportunities to track nests, tag turtles and observe fledgling hatchlings make their way to the vast ocean. Local ordinances in the counties surrounding the refuge require home owners and other establishments to shut off outside lights and use drapes to keep artificial light to a minimum. Standard street lights have been replaced with low ground lights on the side of the roads— illuminated enough to see but not disturb nesting sea turtles. The community thrives on the logo “Sea Turtles Dig the Dark!”

Research with Archie Carr Center and the University of Florida, found replacing traditional “J”-style hook with large circle hooks (G hooks) reduce serious injury to sea turtles. The new “circle” hooks are much less likely to be swallowed by turtles than traditional J-shaped hooks, which cause suffocation or internal bleeding when swallowed.

As a result of the study, NOAA Fisheries requires all U.S. longline fisheries in both the Atlantic and Pacific to use circle hooks. In addition, all boats must carry turtle hoisting, hook removal gear and educate crews.

Archie Carr Refuge is a showcase of how man and endangered species can exist side by side. Sea turtles’ lives reflect the depths and mysteries of the ocean world— their survival is critical to the health of our oceans.

About the author: Natalie Hummel is in EPA’s Pollution Prevention Division, managing E3 efforts in NY, PA, WV, VA, and MT. Natalie joined the Agency as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), and has work on assignments in the Chesapeake Bay Program and at the National Park Service, working on urban stormwater and coastal estuary environmental issues.