MIAMI -- It's turtle-nesting season in Florida, when sea turtles lay their eggs and hatchlings head for the water.
A number of parks, beaches and conservation groups around the state run programs where nature-lovers can learn about the phenomenon and even watch baby turtles -- without disturbing them -- as they emerge from the nests and make their way to the water.
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If you goSea turtle watches: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission maintains a list of organizations that are permitted to conduct public sea turtle watches at http://www.myfwc.com/education/wildlife/sea-turtle/where-to-view/. Many programs charge a small fee of around $10 a person to participate. The programs usually include a presentation and a nighttime walk to look for turtles. The programs are so popular that they fill up months in advance, with registration usually beginning in April or May for June and July programs. Turtle walks sponsored by the Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Conservation are offered through September but also fill up well in advance; check back next year for the 2014 schedule at http://www.miamidade.gov/ecoadventures/seaturtle--program.asp.
The Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Conservation Program offers presentations and turtle walks certain evenings July through September, at the Crandon Park Visitor and Nature Center in Key Biscayne and Haulover Park. But like many of the other programs offered around the state, the Miami-Dade walks are so popular that they fill up months in advance.
Three species of sea turtles regularly nest on Florida beaches, the loggerhead, leatherback, and green. More than 90 percent of U.S. loggerhead nesting takes place in Florida. A count on 26 Florida beaches in 2012 found 58, 172 loggerhead nests, the second-highest number in 24 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Florida is also the only state in the continental U.S. where leatherbacks regularly nest, according to the wildlife commission. In addition, the state hosts one of the largest examples of green turtle nesting in the Western Hemisphere. Two other species also nest in Florida in very small numbers, the Kemp's ridley and hawksbill.
The loggerhead is threatened and the green and leatherback are endangered, but all sea turtles are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Protection Act. It is against the law to touch or disturb nesting sea turtles, hatchlings or their nests.
Adult females nest every two or three years and lay several nests in one season. They emerge from the water to nest on the beach mostly at night, returning to the nesting grounds where they were born. Nests average 100 eggs, and incubate in the sand for approximately 60 days, depending on the species. The hatchlings usually emerge from their nests at night. Only about one in 1,000 baby turtles survive to adulthood.
Nesting season in Florida runs from March through October on the Atlantic coast, and from May through October on the Gulf Coast. The largest numbers of nesting sea turtles are found on the central east coast of Florida, the Space Coast, where walks are typically offered in June and July. Those also fill up well in advance, so if you're planning ahead and would like to see the phenomenon next year, make sure to remember to register for turtle watches in April and May.