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Watching sea turtles hatching in Florida

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A couple of days ago we stumbled across something that has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember: we got to see sea turtles hatching on the beach and it was one of the best experiences of my life. This is one of those things that’s super hard to plan so I’m still pinching myself that we were lucky enough to come across it completely out of the blue. I wanted to share my experience, not only to offer some tips to those who have this on their bucket lists as well, but to share the photos and some of the things I’ve learned since. Read ahead for more on our experience!

Sea turtles hatching: the facts

sea turtles hatching
Watching sea turtles hatch has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember

 – Turtles will return to the same beaches to nest year after year, and they usually nest twice in a season.
 – Turtles lay between 80 and 120 eggs at a time, and the incubation period is around 60 days. Embryos develop quicker in warmer sand, which is more likely to produce female turtles; colder sand takes longer for embryos to develop and results in more male turtles.
 – Baby turtles must emerge from their nests on their own, and this process happens over a period of a few days. They usually emerge overnight or when temperatures are cooler. They use the nearest bright light to orient themselves, and then they head for the ocean.
 – It’s tough being a baby turtle! If they don’t make it to the ocean quickly, they can die from dehydration or be picked up by a predator. Once in the ocean, there are other animals to worry about as well as human debris like discarded plastic and fishing wire. Only one in 1000 turtles make it to adulthood. 

All turtle facts came from Sea Turtle Conservancy; visit their site to learn more about turtles and what you can do to help turtle conservation.  

Where we watched sea turtles hatching in Florida

sea turtles hatching
These tracks from June are evidence of a turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs

The best you can do if you want to see sea turtles hatching is head to the Florida coast (the east coast Mid Atlantic beaches between Cape Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale are the most common nesting sites) in the late summer, look for quiet beaches in the area, and hope you get lucky. 

We got to see sea turtles hatching in Vero Beach. If you’re not familiar with Florida, Vero Beach is Mid Atlantic, about two hours from Orlando and less than an hour down the coast from Cocoa Beach.

We have been coming back and forth to Vero Beach since May, and the closest beach to the house we’ve been staying in is very quiet; the closest resort is Disney’s Vero Beach Resort a couple of miles down the road, but most days we’ve had the beach to ourselves.

Mid Atlantic beaches seem to be popular with nesting turtles, and the beach we’ve been going to has been filled with turtle tracks since the beginning of June. Almost every morning we’ve come to the beach to find multiple tracks in the sand, and nests being marked to keep them safe.

Some were marked as loggerhead nests and others as green sea turtle nests, and over the weeks we got to know how to tell the difference in the tracks leading to the nests to know what we were looking at. 

Knowing that most incubation periods are about 60 days, we didn’t expect to see any hatchlings until August, maybe even later. So when we arrived on the beach at sunrise at the end of July, we were amazed to find a couple of locals calling us over to see a nest that was hatching. To say we were excited was an understatement!

Our experience

I have wanted to watch sea turtles hatching for as long as I can remember. I’ve always known this was something that happened in Florida and living in Orlando, I figured one day I’d go to the beach and try to watch it happen. But it’s not like the hatchlings make an announcement that they’re on their way so it’s pretty much impossible to plan a trip to see something like this. 

sea turtles hatching
The beaches between Cape Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale are some of the best of see sea turtles hatching in Florida

We were on one of our morning beach walks when we noticed a couple of locals waving us over just up the beach. We waved back, thinking they were being friendly, but they kept beckoning us over so we walked in that direction. 

As we got closer, I noticed one man stood back by the dunes, and another moving seaweed aside and pointing to something on the beach. As we got closer, one called to us and although we couldn’t hear everything said, we did hear the words “turtles” and “babies” and that was all I need to hear! 

sea turtles hatching
Hard to see because they’re covered in sand, but those are the little hatchlings emerging from their nest

We approached the nest very cautiously and kept well back, but even from a distance we could see lots of tiny little hatchlings emerging. Some were tiny, only about the size of a quarter, and others were a couple of inches long. Some moved really fast, others seemed a little more reluctant, and some took a few tries to even make it out – one little guy fell back in at least three times!

The hatchlings all immediately turned towards the ocean, which absolutely amazed me; the fact that they’d literally just emerged and knew exactly where to go and what to do was incredible! The speed and the strength of something so small was remarkable to watch, and soon there were hatchlings all over the sand as they headed down to the ocean.

sea turtles hatching
We kept our distance as much as possible but when the turtles did turn and come towards us, we stayed very very still

Grayson is only four years old and as excited as he was to see baby turtles, I kept him as far back as possible to make sure he didn’t get in the way. For the most part we watched from a good distance, although there were times that the turtles suddenly turned and came towards us and then we just stayed very still. 

As the hatchlings came down the beach we helped move the seaweed out of the way and kicked over a small pile of sand that a few little ones had gotten stuck behind. A couple of the hatchlings climbed up over the seaweed and managed to flip themselves over so we kept an eye on those, but they always righted themselves after a few seconds.

sea turtles hatching
There was a lot of seaweed on the beach that morning so we cleared as much as possible – although some still had to do a little climbing!

And then they were off into the ocean! There were some pretty good sized waves the morning we were there and watching these tiny little creatures head out so fearlessly into them was kind of scary; they got swallowed up by the water so fast and then they were gone.

The water was very clear and we saw some of them a few feet into the water, and they were swimming away so easily, it was amazing to think they’d only just arrived into the world. We waved them goodbye and wished them luck (and Grayson shouted up to the hovering pelicans to go find breakfast somewhere else!)

sea turtles hatching
I was amazed that they turtles emerged from their nest and just knew exactly what to do and where to go – they just took off!

Of course, in reality not every sea turtle is going to make it. There were a couple that made it out of the nest but just couldn’t seem to make it any further down the beach. Some got all the way down to the water but then didn’t have the strength to get into the water, or they did but then couldn’t find the energy to swim and were just tossed around by the waves.

Grayson was too young to really understand why some weren’t moving as much, but older or more sensitive kids might find it hard so just be prepared. One of the men who had originally called us over had the number of a local turtle conservation so he called them to pick up some of the ones struggling. I hope they were able to save as many as possible.

sea turtles hatching
It was amazing to watch the hatchlings disappear into the ocean; we wished them all the best of luck!

As I said, this was something I’d wanted to see my whole life, and I’m still pinching myself that we got to see it; I feel so lucky that I got to experience it, especially since I got to see it all with one of the kids with me. 

Do’s and don’t’s of watching sea turtles hatching

sea turtles hatching
Some of the research I’ve done on what to do, and what not to do, if you get to see sea turtles hatching

Keep your distance. Turtle nests should not be disturbed, and hatchlings need space to figure out where they’re going once they emerge. If they get confused about where to go, they might not make it down to the ocean.
 – Make sure they have a clear path to the ocean. One thing you can do to help out the hatchlings is to make sure their path to the ocean is clear. Fill in any holes they might get trapped in, move objects like driftwood or large piles of seaweed out of the way. Do this before they start to head down the beach so you’re not getting in their way, and they’ll have a much easier time making it to the ocean.
 – Donate. If you want to donate to help save important nesting beaches, I discovered, where every $1 donated saves 10 hatchlings!
 – Report any violations or inappropriate behavior. You can call the FWC Wildlife Alert number at 1-888-404-3922.

 – Shine any bright lights. Hatchlings will head for the light, and if you’re shining a light over them it can easily confuse them. 
 – Touch the hatchlings. They’re tiny and really cute and the temptation might be to pick one up to help it along, but it’s is actually against the law. Allowing the hatchlings to crawl to the ocean on their own ensures they can imprint on the sand; this means that they’ll know the return to this beach when it’s time for them to lay their own nests. 
 – Forget to take pictures! I must have taken over 100 photos and videos and I’m so glad I did; there were things I just didn’t take in at the time because I was so excited so I’m really happy I have photos to look back on. Grayson is probably also too young to remember this experience so I’m glad I have the recorded memories to show him when he’s older.

If you love seeing marine animals in the wild, be sure to check out where to see baby seals in the UK as well. 

Other posts about experiencing natural Florida:

Sebastian Inlet State Park
Bioluminescent kayaking in Florida
Ideas for a socially distant Florida vacation
The best beaches close to Disney World
Where to see the best sunsets in Florida

sea turtles hatching