Discovering a nest full of baby leatherback sea turtles would be exciting for anyone. For Rangers in Bahia Honda State Park, it was extra special, since this is the first time these turtles have been found nesting in the Florida Keys.

Image: Florida State Parks

It was a few months ago that Park Ranger, Elaine Mason discovered a circular depression in the sand that she suspected could be a hatched turtle nest. Sea turtles need to return to land to lay their eggs, so when the time comes, momma turtle laboriously pulls herself up onto the beach to dig a nest in the sand. This leaves behind two characteristic traces: the first is the “crawl,” a wide drag-track left by the turtle’s body. The second is a circular dip in the sand where the eggs are buried.

Bahia Honda State Park gets its fair share of sea turtles, including greens and loggerheads, and less commonly Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill. Right away this new nest looked different from the rest. According to Keely Final of the local park services, “[t]he amount of sand that was disturbed was at least triple the size of a normal crawl we see at the beaches here.” Upon closer investigation, the nest had a tiny turtle hatchling crawling out of it. Wildlife biologist Sue Schaf confirmed the baby was a leatherback.

Image: Florida State Parks


Editor's note: these hatchlings are being handled by trained officials. You should never attempt to remove a turtle hatchling from its nest.

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtles in the world. They can grow over two metres (6.5 feet) long and weigh well over 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). They are also the deepest-diving and widest-ranging turtles in the ocean. More than a decade ago, leatherback turtle nests were discovered in Dry Tortugas National Park, west of the Keys, but they’ve never been found nesting in the Keys themselves. “I guess [the Bahia Honda] turtle got a little lost,” said Schaf.

The nest was left alone and observed for three days, during which time tracks in the sand showed that more hatchlings had emerged. On the fourth day, park staff, along with representatives from Save a Turtle and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, dug into the nest to investigate. They found more than 60 eggs, of which seven had hatched, along with one more surprise: the latest hatchling to emerge was still among the clutch! The team named him Franklin before released him later that night.

Like all sea turtles, leatherbacks are highly threatened by human activity. Most significantly, they suffer due to a long history of their eggs being harvested and a continual loss of beach and reef habitats. They are also known to become fatally entangled in fishing nets, and will sometimes swallow plastic bags after mistaking them for their favourite food: jellyfish. The bags can block the turtles’ digestive tracts, ultimately suffocating them.

Leatherback mothers generally lay eggs every two to three years, so the turtle-enthusiasts in the park are interested to see if this turtle makes a return appearance in the future. And since sea turtles often nest on the same beach they were born, it might be that some of these hatchlings will return as well in a decade or so to lay their own eggs. Who knows? Maybe this is the beginning of a brand new family nesting site.

Image: Florida State Parks

What's it like swimming with these gentle giants? I Am Water Foundation freediver (and longtime friend of Earth Touch) Beth Neale had this incredible encounter early last year: 


Top header image: Ken Clifton/Flickr