Loggerhead Hatchling Release. Photo courtesy of Mote Aquarium
Morning Turtle Patrol. Photo courtesy of Mote Aquarium

Share the Sand: It’s Sea Turtle Nesting Season in Sarasota County

Sarasota County hosts the highest density of loggerhead sea turtle nests in the Gulf of Mexico. Here's what you need to know about sharing our beaches with these cute critters.

If you head to Sarasota County’s beaches this time of year, you might find you’re not the only one settling in on the sand—and that you have company of the non-human kind.

That’s because May 1 through October 31 is sea turtle nesting season in these parts. During the first half of the season, female sea turtles come on shore to build their nests and lay their eggs. Beginning typically in July, the baby sea turtles start hatching and embark on their journey back into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota monitors 35 miles of beaches in Sarasota and neighboring Manatee County daily to check for new sea turtle nests. This work is done in coordination with county, state, and federal efforts to conserve sea turtles, and Mote’s findings each nesting season contribute to the statewide picture of sea turtle nesting trends. Loggerhead turtles are a particular focus in this area, since Sarasota County hosts the highest density of loggerhead nests in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mote’s data from the 2022 nesting season reported that sea turtles laid a total of 4,483 nests on the stretch of beaches Mote monitors from Longboat Key to Venice.

How to Help Hatchlings

Local sea turtle nesting success depends on everyone doing their part to make the process from egg to escape go as smoothly as possible. For visitors, that means following some simple dos and don’ts when you’re at the beach or staying at a beachfront rental or hotel.

When setting up your chairs and umbrellas on the sand, steer clear of active turtle nesting sites, which are marked by wooden stakes and yellow/orange caution tape. If you happen to get lucky enough to see a female nesting or some newborns hatching, observe from afar.

“[Sea turtles] are a protected species, so it’s illegal to interact with them in any way,” says Melissa Bernhard, senior biologist with Mote’s sea turtle conservation and research program. “Adults in the nesting process can be scared away very easily, so it’s best to keep your distance.”

Sea turtle experts at Mote advise against trying to photograph nesting sea turtles. Using a flash or bright lights can disorient nesting sea turtles or hatchlings.

When your beach day is over, make sure to remove furniture, toys and other items from the beach and clean up your trash. Fill in any holes you dug and knock down any sandcastles you built, as these can be unexpected obstacles for the turtles.

Keeping beaches dark at night is especially important, as hatchlings find the water by heading toward the brightest direction, which is ideally the open night sky over the water. So don’t use flashlights or fishing lamps on the beach at night, turn off outdoor lights if you’re staying at a beachfront property, and close your drapes or blinds in the evening to block light coming from indoors.

“When there are lights on or near the beach, it can override turtles’ natural instincts,” says Bernhard. “They end up crawling directly toward the light, which can waste their energy or lead them into dangerous situations. We want them to get to the water as quickly as possible.”

And don’t forget about your cell phone if you’re using it on the beach at night, says Carol Leonard, a member of the board of directors for the Coastal Wildlife Club, which monitors 16 miles of sea turtle nesting beaches from Caspersen Beach in Venice south along Manasota Key to Stump Pass Beach State Park in Englewood. (Check out its Facebook page for nesting info and photos throughout the season.) She recommends setting your cell phone back lighting to either “off” or the dimmest setting, plus shielding the screen with your hand if you’re pulling it out after dark.

Who You Gonna Call?

If you see a sick, injured, or stranded sea turtle in Sarasota County, contact Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program at 888-345-2335. 

How to See Sea Turtles (Safely) this Season

If you want to get a firsthand look at sea turtle nesting, head out to Longboat Key for a turtle walk conducted by Longboat Key Turtle Watch. Held on Saturdays in June and July at 6:45 a.m., the free walks meet at the public beach access at 4795 Gulf of Mexico Drive and offer info on sea turtle nesting in general and the chance to observe any recent activity spotted by beach patrollers. No advance registration is necessary; just show up on time and be ready to go at 6:45 a.m.

“You don’t usually see turtles, because it’s rare to see them in the morning, but the walks highlight recent nesting activity and you can see what’s happened on the beach,” says Tim Thurman, president of Longboat Key Turtle Watch. “Our mission is focused on education and awareness about sea turtles and their habitat, and these walks are one of our methods of outreach to the public to help educate them on what goes on."

In July and August, Longboat Key Turtle Watch holds evening events to share information about nest openings and hatchings. Those are usually scheduled about three days in advance, so check the organization’s website or Facebook page for dates.

To learn more about sea turtles, head to Mote Aquarium. Its sea turtle exhibit tells visitors about sea turtle traits, threats the creatures face, and how Mote helps protect the sea turtle population. It also includes information about Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, which treats sick and injured turtles with the hope of returning them back to the wild. Daily presentations take place at 3 p.m.

Mote is home to resident sea turtles. Hang Tough, a blind green turtle, came to Mote in 1992 and couldn’t survive in the wild without his sight. Female loggerhead sea turtle Montego was born in North Carolina in 1977, raised in human care, and participated in growth and mating studies. She came to Mote after those studies were over to serve as an educational ambassador.

And those tiny turtles you might spot in the exhibit area? Those are temporary residents of Mote’s Hatchling Hospital. Baby turtles in need of some extra help are given medical treatment here, then returned to the wild when they’re healthy. And who knows? Maybe they’ll be involved in a future nesting season here down the road.