Photo courtesy of SWTWG

My Aunt Sharon lives in Florida and she told me about another Sharon in Florida that helps sea turtles.  Sharon Maxwell started a group called the South Walton Turtle Watch Group (http://southwaltonturtlewatch.org). The SWTW are a group of volunteers who seek out and protect sea turtle nests along the beach. Volunteers have to have extensive training to do this, too. Did you know that according to the SWTWG, sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act and only those with special permits are allowed to touch the nests, turtles, or hatchlings? There is a $2,500.00 reward for information leading to the conviction of violators.

 J: How long has the SWTWG group been around?

SM: The South Walton Turtle Watch Group was started by me in 1995.

J: What is your main goal?

SM: Our goal is to provide a safe place for sea turtles to nest, and to find, mark, move and monitor these nests.  Also to provide data to the state and Federal government about these nests

J: Since you have been a volunteer how many people that hurt the turtle nests have you helped get convicted?

SM:  We have only had one incident on someone doing harm to a sea turtle nest and we were able to do some good education with this person and they now help protect sea turtle nest.

J: How many hours does a volunteer have to train to be able to help sea turtles? What are the rules they have to follow?

SM: Training is provided every year by the State of Florida and lasts for five hours for new comers. Then it is on-the- job (so to speak) for a year or two before you can be more than just a walker and do things. Also, this training is every year for us in SWTWG. The state of Florida provides guidelines for everything we do.  We have to follow these guidelines and report to the state all of our activities.

 J: How far does your territory extend?

SM:Our permit covers all the non-state park beaches in Walton County (about 24 miles), which we walk everyday from May 1 through October.

Relocating a nest
Photo courtesy of SWTWG

 J: How many volunteers do you have?

SM: We have 25 on our permit. These are the people that not only walk, but determine if the sea turtle tracks are nests or just false crawls. They mark and move nests, and evaluate nests after they hatch.  They also have to do sea turtle strandings. That is, moving or helping dead or injured sea turtles. We have another permit for just walkers, and there are about 40 on this permit.

 J: So it sounds like there are a couple levels of involvement for the volunteers. Some get more involved after extensive training while the less-experienced just walk and report things to you.

J: How did the nests do this summer?

SM: This summer we have had 96 nests and only about 30 have hatched so far. Of those hatchings, most were successful.

J: Do you work only with loggerhead turtles or do you work with other animals too?

SM: This year we have had four of the five sea turtle species that nest in the state of Florida. Those are the Loggerhead (our most frequent nester), the Kemps Ridley, the Leatherback and the Green. Our permit covers all sea turtle activities on all sea turtles, the only animal covered on the permit.

J:What is going on with the light ordinance? Why is nighttime lighting important to sea turtles?

A green heading to the water
Photo courtesy of SWTWG

SM: We have had a lighting ordinance for three years now, and I am sorry to say not much has happened with it in place. Not many lights have been changed. This year we are really getting on the county to do something about it. Write letters and file folks, we do hope they do this.  We also are trying to get someone to sell red light-emitting flashlights. Sea turtles do not see the red light spectrum, so these are great for walking on the beach at night.  Adult and hatchling sea turtles always go to the lightest horizon, which before artificial light was around, was the water. Now artificial light draws the turtles to it, and they don’t find the water. We can see this in adult tracks and also when we are releasing hatchlings. Even someone coming down the beach with a white-light flashlight can draw the hatchling to the light. It seems that to get to the water a sea turtle only uses its sight so this is a very important issue for their conservation.

Photo courtesy of SWTWG

Thanks, Sharon for all you and SWTWG do. It is hard work for volunteers but it’s worth it.

To get more information about South Walton Turtle Watch check out their website at http://southwaltonturtlewatch.org.