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Sea turtles receive helping hand

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Veronica McMahon
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Freedom -- it's fought for everyday. And while service members devote themselves to the fight for freedom, there is another creature that also wakes up to the struggle, instinct, and drive to be free. Except their fight takes place on the shores of the Emerald Coast.

A baby Loggerhead turtle is born with almost no chance of reaching adulthood, and through extreme weather conditions, predators, and rough beach habitat, their fight to reach the ocean is only survived by the strongest. Due to the struggle they engage in to even reach the water, a team from Tyndall has devoted their mornings to assisting the sea turtles in their fight for survival.

At roughly 5:00 a.m., the team starts their day by loading up the Mule and four-wheelers onto the trailers to haul them to the beach. They drive out to Crooked Island, where they begin their 17-mile ride on the beaches.

"We go to check the nests daily to see if there are any new ones or if any have hatched," said Senior Airman Jake Wagner, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron, Natural Resources. "If there are no new tracks or they haven't hatched we ride by the nests because it takes 60 days for them to hatch after they are laid."

Airman Wagner and Airman 1st Class Steven Sanders, 325th CES Natural Resources, have spent their mornings for the past few months learning, training and working with the sea turtles.

"I enjoy helping endangered animals," Airman Sanders said. "I'm proud that I am able to help the baby turtles reach the shoreline."

During their beach ride, if they come across a nest they assess the location and record the information.

The information they document includes width, distance, beach location and turtle species. Documenting a nest crawl takes roughly 20 minutes. If the crawl tracks leads to a nest that must be moved, and then an hour or more is spent conducting the relocation. This time is in addition to the three hours it takes to drive the length of the beach.

"We are currently keeping eyes on 40 nests," said Johnny Jennings, 325th CES Natural Resources wildlife technician. "We try and protect them the best we can. The majority of the nests will hatch in the next two to three weeks."

"We record when each nest is laid and after 60 days we keep watch on the nests for roughly 10 days," said Airman Wagner. "After about 70 days, we dig up the nests to see if the turtle eggs are okay."

When the team discovers or relocates the nests, they mark them off with four poles and ribbons. They also put a screen over the nest to help protect the eggs from predators.

"It's important that the team go out daily because if the nest needs to be relocated it must be done within a day," said Mr. Jennings. "So far this year, the team has relocated nine nests and three have hatched. The eggs have ranged for nearly 80 to 150 per batch."

"If we don't help them, the chance they will survive decreases," Airman Wagner said. "We help them by relocating them, helping the hatching procedure and keeping coyotes and ghost crabs out of their nests. They have many dangers before they are even born."

According to Mr. Jennings, roughly one out of every 1,000 turtles actually lives to adulthood.

"This year the first nest was found May 10," Mr. Jennings said. "We thought it was going to be a bigger year than last year but we are actually right around the same number of nests."

The Loggerhead turtle is the most dominant species of sea turtle found on Tyndall beaches. This species can reach anywhere from 150 to 400 pounds and is reddish brown to yellow in color. Florida is one of their main nesting areas. The Leatherback and Green turtles are also in the local area; however, their nests aren't often found on Tyndall.

Programs are in place at all local coastline areas to assist the turtles during nesting season. Tyndall AFB has participated in this environmental assistance for more than 17 years.

The turtles have many natural predators on land and at sea. To help increase their chance of survival, beachgoers are discouraged from camping, digging holes, hanging out late at night and going on early morning group runs on the beach without notifying Natural Resources.

If crawl tracks, a nest, or a turtle is found, or for more information, call Natural Resources at 283-2641.