- Katherine Dudley Hoehn
Hurricane Preparation: Washback Sea Turtles
While others are gassing up their generators, ensuring they have batteries, and stocking up on toilet paper, the wonderful volunteers and staff who help our sea turtles are prepared for the extra care they'll be giving in the days and weeks after the storm passes. They'll be locating and helping rehabilitate baby sea turtles that are victims of the ferocious winds and waves that accompany a hurricane.
Hurricanes are tough on baby sea turtles and sea turtle nests. The turtle hatching and hurricane seasons coincide. High winds and riptides are dangerous to little turtles who are trying to swim to safety, avoid predators, and stay on course. Severe weather can also dislocate young turtles who have already made their long swim to the Gulf Stream.
Swells and high surf present danger for turtle nests that may be washed out to sea, uncovered, made vulnerable to predators, or submerged in water that can destroy the embryos.
Most of the 238 sea turtle nests on Amelia Island this year have already hatched. Fueled by the egg yolks they consume in the pipping (hatching) process, sea turtles then have a big, exhausting job to do to climb out of their sandy nests and flipper their way across the beach to the ocean. Then, they have a long swim to the safety of the reeds and seaweed offshore and on to the sargassum beds of the Gulf Stream, where they spend their first few years.
The last recorded nest laid here this season was a green turtle nest on September 1. Since it takes about 60 days for hatchlings to emerge, it may be early November when those green turtles hatchlings emerge from their nest ... if the wind and waves don't destroy it first.
What to watch for on the beach
During and after hurricanes and storms of all kinds, sea turtle hatchlings may be tossed back on shore by high waves, along with seaweed and debris. These young turtles, called washbacks, have already made their way to the Gulf Stream and are in a different life stage than the hatchlings that have just emerged from their nests. Washbacks, a little larger (about the size of your palm) and often with a grassy-like moss on their shells, cannot make the swim to the Gulf Stream again. They need special attention. They are too weak to swim back to their Gulf Stream homes and must be rehabilitated. Often they are tangled in debris on the shore.
If you find a washback baby on the beach, do not return it to the surf. It will not be able to swim back to the Gulf Stream. On Amelia Island, call Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch, 904-583-1913, to have the turtle picked up. Make sure you can identify the closest beach access before you call. Elsewhere, call local law enforcement for directions. While you’re waiting, please protect it from predators.
Washbacks are cared for in special hospitals and then receive a free boat trip offshore to the seaweed beds where they will spend the next few years. We are fortunate to have several nearby facilities that care for washbacks including: University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and the Brevard Zoo.
Thank you for taking extra care to help save these babies. With our help, they'll be around for our grandchildren and great grandchildren to enjoy.
Please consider sharing this article on Facebook or in social media. You might just end up saving a sea turtle!