How to See Baby Sea Turtles at a National Park
Every summer, national parks along the coast are home to a near-miraculous event that often goes unseen. When baby sea turtles emerge from the sand and make their first journey to the water, our national parks provide an essential safe haven for these endangered animals.
The sea turtle life cycle
Female sea turtles emerge from the water in early summer to crawl up onto the beach and lay their eggs in the sand, using their flippers to dig a hole in which to deposit their eggs. After the eggs are laid, the turtles cover the nest with sand and return to the water, never coming back to the nest site.
This event is rarely seen, taking place under cover of darkness, and the only sign of a nest's location is the track left by the mother turtle. Sea turtle species that hatch in your national parks include:
- Green sea turtle
- Hawksbill sea turtle
- Kemp's ridley sea turtle
- Olive ridley sea turtle
- Loggerhead sea turtle
- Leatherback sea turtle
Sea turtle eggs usually hatch between June and September, and the new sea turtle hatchlings must immediately make a perilous journey down the beach to the water. It's a dangerous time in a young turtle's life, and these days, they can use a hand.
A little help from their friends
Due to a combination of factors – beach erosion, pollution, invasive species, climate change, habitat loss – reproducing is more difficult than ever for the sea turtles. Park rangers in the areas where turtles nest work hard to ensure a healthy hatch, keeping careful track of nesting sites and, in some cases, carefully moving nests to protected areas or incubation facilities.
The National Park Foundation has provided grants to support the preservation of sea turtles and their habitat on several occasions, including a $19,200 grant to help protect the hawksbill sea turtles that hatch on the beaches of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. This grant supported:
- Restoring sea turtle habitat
- Locating and monitoring sea turtle nesting sites
- Relocating nests to safe areas and incubating eggs when necessary
- Releasing newly hatched female sea turtles to the beaches where they were born to maintain a healthy long-term reproductive cycle
- Educating the public on the life cycle of endangered turtle species
Seeing baby sea turtles in your national parks
Identified sea turtle nesting sites are closed to the public to protect the eggs and allow them to hatch safely, but in many parks, opportunities still exist to take part in the life cycle of sea turtles.
- Padre Island National Seashore (Texas): As incubated sea turtles hatch, they are released on the beach by park scientists to make their own way back to the water. Hatchling releases take place throughout the summer, usually in the early morning hours, and are open to the public.
- Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida): Several female sea turtles – including a trio nicknamed Sally, Courtney, and Miranda – have been tagged by scientists for research purposes. You can follow the journey of each of these turtles and track their annual migration online.
- Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida, Mississippi): Volunteer programs can give teens an opportunity to help nesting turtles by monitoring light pollution along beaches. Light pollution is a key factor that affects sea turtle nesting behavior.
Summer offers an opportunity to witness the birth of the next generation of sea turtles at several national parks. Thanks in part to the help of the National Park Foundation, these majestic creatures continue to make a comeback in their natural habitat.