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Florida Sea Turtle Gains Wow Researchers

Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy.
Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy.

Sea turtles in Florida are making a comeback.

Leading the way is the green turtle, a species that a few decades ago was near the brink. Today its recovery is virtually unprecedented for an endangered species in the United States.

The gains are most apparent at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne Beach, among the world's most significant nesting sites for sea turtles.

A sea turtle emerges from the waves alone, in darkness to bear the offspring she'll never know.

"They look like an ancient dark behemoth."

Heather Stapleton of the Sea Turtle Conservancy leads groups of onlookers onto the beach of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge to watch sea turtles nest. The conservancy is the world's oldest research and conservation organization for the reptiles as ancient as dinosaurs.

"She comes up out of the surf, and she's there. She lifts her head up a couple of times usually in the air to take breaths and kind of feel her way around. We don't know if she's looking for something chemical in the sand or not. But once she decides things feel right she will climb up the beach."

It is an effort. In the ocean the turtle is weightless. On the beach she is 300 pounds, and she stops often to rest until finding her nesting place well away from the tide. Then she begins to dig, scooping sand with her flippers. Here she will lay her eggs.

The turtle breathes as her flippers fling sand over her eggs, concealing them from predators.

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is second in the world behind Oman in the Middle East in loggerhead nests like this one. It was established in 1991 to preserve this 20-mile beach for nesting. It's working.

Lou Ehrhart is a University of Central Florida researcher who has counted sea turtle nests in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge since the mid-80s.

"As a scientist I have to be a little careful about how I throw the word 'miracle' around, but yes I agree in this case it is really quite extraordinary."

He says the green turtles' recovery is especially astounding.

"In those first three years we had 30 or 40 green turtle nests, and summer before last we had 11,840, and just nothing. It represents an annual growth of about 17 percent. That's just unheard of."

Statewide sea turtles are thriving. Loggerheads and leatherbacks also are rebounding, although the loggerheads' recovery has been more uneven. Florida leads the nation in sea turtle nests.

Most of the credit goes to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which outlawed the consumption of turtle meat. Green turtles especially were popular. Sea turtles begin reproducing in their early 20s, and so researchers believe that's why their populations are multiplying now. Ehrhart also points to state protections of Florida beaches for nesting.

Sea turtles still face many threats. In the Pacific Ocean leatherback populations are plunging.

But at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge our mother loggerhead has laid her eggs and is disappearing into the waves.

She never will return to her nest.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.