In the dark of night, teeny sea turtles emerge from sandy nests as waves roll ashore several yards away.
Instead of aiming for the shimmering surf as nature intends, thousands of wayward hatchlings are attracted to other light sources and naively wriggle toward resorts, roadways, and storm drains. They turn the wrong way because of human light sources.
In South Florida, a well-organized team of trained volunteers is focused on that issue. Participants with Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP) devote sunset to sunrise observing nests and assisting disoriented newborn turtles reach the water’s edge safely. Each nest usually yields dozens of hatchlings, who sometimes shoot off in different directions.
“We’re all a family out there trying to make sure we’re there for the turtles,” says founding director Richard WhiteCloud.
During hatching season, which occurs during spring, summer, and fall, volunteers with buckets are dispatched to designated zones every night. Within a 24-mile stretch, the organization monitors about 1,200 to 1,600 nests a year, and each nest likely holds 75 to 125 eggs deposited by a mama from endangered or threatened species.
The organization showcases the powerful potential of devoted volunteers. On average per year, participants rescue and release about 25,000 to 30,000 disoriented hatchlings that are scurrying toward town instead of the ocean.
Richard and Siouxzen WhiteCloud established the nonprofit organization in 2007. Their passion for protecting sea turtles and advocating for turtle-friendly lighting was sparked when Siouxzen randomly encountered a bunch of hatchlings flattened on a busy beachside road.
Richard recalls evenings walking the shoreline while carrying his sleeping 3-year-old daughter on his back. When he scooped up disoriented turtles, the youngster watched from her safe perch.
Over the years, the organization attracted a network of devoted supporters, including up to about 140 volunteers who work the beaches during peak season. That includes the WhiteClouds’ daughter, who is now on the board of directors.
Threatened and endangered sea turtles, which include loggerhead, leatherback, and green turtles, are protected by state and federal laws. Anyone interacting with them — including rescuing them — must follow strict rules. To ensure that they observe all of the rules, volunteers for STOP complete a required 48 hours of training. Volunteers learn, for example, that they must not interfere with hatchlings unless the tiny turtles reach a designated distance in the wrong direction.
Regardless of which way turtles walk, the efforts to assist them are incredibly rewarding, according to volunteers. “Every night I am out on the habitat — even when I am just staring at sand — I leave there with a sense of accomplishment,” says Karen Valiquette, a zone leader and board member.
Valiquette recalls an especially active evening when turtles hatched at six different nests within her zone from 7:30 p.m. to about 4:30 a.m. “I am sure that is not a record for this organization, but for me it was extraordinary,” she recalls. “The nights where I had the honor to assist these hatchlings to make it to the water, I am uplifted by the experience, and sleep deprivation is not an issue.”
In addition to adult volunteers, the organization offers opportunities for enthusiastic participants ages 10 to 17. “These kids are just awesome,” says Zen WhiteCloud, director of the youth program. Protecting wildlife is empowering, she says. “There’s a need for the youth to be able to express their humanity to its fullest potential.”
In addition to volunteer opportunities, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection offers opportunities to observe the turtles. Turtle Treks offers the public an opportunity to possibly witness newborn sea turtles. Participants reserve slots for $25 to spend an evening on the sand with the volunteers — the popular program that often sells out during peak nesting season. All proceeds help fund the nonprofit’s rescue operations.
For interested applicants from anywhere in the world, the nonprofit also established a voluntourism program, which includes rooming accommodations and training to work hands-on with the turtles and other volunteers. The fee is $1,500. Participants in this program also need to be members of STOP; membership is available with a minimum donation of $25. For information: email@example.com or 954-404-0025.
Programs like these are valuable for inspiring others to protect sea turtles and their precious habitat. Sometimes, STOP staff have opportunities to provide information during the beach trek.
“I enjoy educating the public that are out on the beach usually using a flashlight — which during turtle season is prohibited,” says Tonia Fralin, secretary and zone leader. “In the area I typically monitor, we have 50 percent tourists and 50 percent locals, but it seems that 75 percent do not know about turtle nesting season. I hope that I can inspire at least one in 10 to care about the planet and be aware of our impact on nature.”
Human Impact on Sea Turtles
Watch the video for more information about how to avoid endangering sea turtles with artificial lighting and litter, or when nesting. Video courtesy of the South Walton Community Council and the Environmental Awareness Group.
Feature photo courtesy of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection